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Using technology and big data to disrupt trafficking 

In CRJ 10:2 Bernie Gravett looked at human trafficking as a societal crisis, examining how this crime feeds upon vulnerability, creating instability and affecting every country in a variety of forms across Europe.


Human trafficking is the second largest cash generator for organised crime in the world, and traffickers often prey on the victims of disaster and war (photo: Shutterstock)

Gravett, a retired Police Superintendent from the Metropolitan Police in the UK, says that current global conflicts have exacerbated the problem putting entire populations at serious risk of trafficking: “Some children who have fled Somalia to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, are forced into prostitution or labour as herders.”

Worse still: “An alarming trend to emerge is that of numerous non-state armed groups abducting, recruiting and exploiting children as combatants, porters, spies and for sex in the conflicts that have erupted in Africa and the Middle East.”

The World Economic Forum estimates that around the world, almost 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. But, it says, data is a key area in the fight against this crime.

A new Forum Report: Hedging risk by combating human trafficking: Insights from the private sector looks at how sectors such as finance and technology are using big data to find patterns in human trafficking. “Doing so has allowed them and anti-human trafficking groups to get a head start in the fight against those who trade in human lives,” say Christina Bain and Louise Shelley in an article on the WEF website.

They continue: “As Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance points out: “All sorts of electronic and digital fingerprints are left when a crime is committed or a business enterprise is being run. Financial institutions are in a unique position to spot red flags in banking activity and report them to law enforcement.”

Bain, who is Director of the Initiative on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the Babson Social Innovation Lab, and Shelley, Professor, School of Public Policy at George Mason University, describe how in 2010 JP Morgan has been working designing financial models that would produce correlations in the data that were red flags for trafficking.

“The team partnered with the United States Department of Homeland Security to create typologies to identify financial transactions and account attributes that were worth investigating. Certain geographic locations and types of businesses – nail salons, non-unionised stores and restaurants – were viewed as a higher risk for trafficking activity, based on publicly sourced information. Coupled with the types of transactions – credit card charges at certain hours of the night, for example – JP Morgan’s Financial Intelligence Unit began to see distinct patterns emerging.

“The distinct nature of the patterns is important to note,” say Bain and Shelley. “Drug trafficking and organised crime can raise suspicion because large amounts of money flow through a single account. But often, trafficking does not generate money in quantities large enough to send a warning to FinCEN, the financial crime enforcement unit of the US Treasury.

“Therefore, while FinCEN maintains that certain red flags can signal possible human trafficking activity, the JP Morgan case suggests multiple variables need to be examined to establish a stronger indication of the crime. Rather than merely filing a suspicious activity report, financial institutions might more effectively pinpoint human trafficking activities if they examine several variables, including recurrent business transactions outside official hours of operation, cross-border transfer of funds inconsistent with the stated business purpose of the account holder, as well as a high number of individual accounts opened and closed simultaneously," they add.

Technology can enable or disrupt human trafficking, allowing greater opportunities for traffickers to exploit victims. “Women and girls especially are often lured through online adverts for models, mail-order brides, nannies, waitresses and domestic servants. Customers can now more easily solicit victims at the click of a button,” according to Bain and Shelley. They describe how Microsoft and Google have invested in technological disruption to combat human trafficking.

“The lessons from the financial and technology communities show how innovative solutions from the business world can achieve success in combating human trafficking, especially when law enforcement, academia and business can share their respective insights,” Bain and Shelley conclude.

The World Economic Forum report, Hedging Risk by Combating Human Trafficking, is available here.  

Bernie Gravett, 02/03/2015
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