That is the latest estimate on how many people are enslaved around the world today.1 Many are victims of forced sexual exploitation, and many others are trapped in forced labor that varies from domestic work to manufacturing. They come from every nation and are hidden in every country, sometimes in their home countries or sometimes smuggled across borders. Together, they represent a global industry of worth $150B in illegal cash.2
Profits of human trafficking across sectors, and profitability of forced labor across sectors2
Fighting human traffickinga is extremely difficult, for a variety of reasons. One major reason is that it is an ever-present and fluid network; traffickers can be anywhere and are often in motion, both within a single country and internationally. This makes activity difficult to track, particularly when traffickers shift to new cities or cross borders. On top of that, the response to this fluid web is fragmented by geography; there are hundreds of organizations trying to respond to human trafficking within their sphere of influence. Unfortunately, without coordinated response we are often outmatched by traffickers that can easily move on to new geographies.
However, the use of analytics and big data has provided an opportunity to better understand these networks and integrate resources to combat them. Google, Salesforce.com, and Palantir have provided funding and expertise to develop a database and analytics platform that performs two major functions:
(1) Gathers and synthesizes trafficking data and identifies patterns
(2) Enables a localized, coordinated response3
In the United States, this platform provides the foundation for the work of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), an initiative managed by the non-profit Polaris Project. NHRTC operates a national hotline, equivalent to “911” for human trafficking. Between December 2007-2015, the hotline received more than 122,000 calls in addition to thousands of others of emails and web submissions.4
Prior to the development of this platform, the NHTRC stored information from each of these calls in independent files. In a sense, each case felt like a new one; the organization was not able to fully leverage its experience across the country in each region to understand patterns and expedite a response for a single case.5
Now, data and analytics has transformed the way the NHTRC operates and responds to trafficking. When the center receives tips and pleas for assistance, these data points are added to the existing database. As the database has grown, the analytics platform has identified patterns, from networks that cross state lines to tracing five cases to a single fake organization recruiting “employees” online.5 The goal is not simply to understand and respond to a single case in isolation, but to develop a systematic understanding and therefore a systematic response to fight, disrupt, and prevent the network of trafficking activity.
Not only does the platform recognize patterns, but it also enables rapid response that combines all resources within the area. In emergency scenarios, where the difference between responding in 8 minutes versus 10 minutes can mean the difference between success and failure, every second saved is critical. When a caller contacts the NHTRC, their location can be immediately pinpointed, and the platform automatically maps out local resources in reference to that location, including everything from critical emergency response to social services for recovery.6
Powered by data and analytics, the NHTRC’s hotline is an important step to tackling human trafficking on a national level, but trafficking is an international problem that crosses borders. To fight an international network of crime, we need an international network of shared data and resources. With that goal in mind, Polaris Project has initiated partnerships with other organizations (starting with La Strada and Liberty Asia) to form the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The objective of this network is to “develop a more coordinated global response for victims of this transnational crime…[to] create a data-driven approach that identifies human trafficking trends and informs eradication, prevention, and victim protection strategies.”7
Note that this video is from 2013, and does not reflect the latest data from the NHTRC or the ILO.
Sharing and analyzing data across countries is an enormous step forward in understanding, fighting, and ultimately preventing this web of cruelty. However, there is significant work to be done. This network of shared data, analytics, and resources must continue to grow, and must work with enforcement (e.g., local police, national agencies such as the FBI, etc.) to shift toward more preventative action. Furthermore, we need greater awareness of human trafficking at a global level, and need stronger common policy and enforcement that tightens the global net for traffickers.
Finally, while policy, enforcement, and data analytics have a place, these tools are only effective if individuals are vigilant and report suspicious activity. Those tips form the database that drives the fight against human trafficking – but more importantly, they can mean the difference between hope and despair for a single victim. We cannot lose sight of these individuals in the face of a global problem.
1 down; 20,999,999 to go.
Word count: 799
For more information on human trafficking:
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html
- US Department of Homeland Security: https://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign
- International Labour Organization: http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm
- A glimpse into the experience of victims: “Human Trafficking: A Crime Hard to Track Proves Harder to Fight”, PBS, July 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/what-is-human-trafficking-and-why-is-it-so-hard-to-combat/
[a] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as anything fulfilling three criteria:
The Act: Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons
The Means: Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim
The Purpose: For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.
From: “Human Trafficking”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html
* “Human Trafficking”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed 11/17/2016. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html
 ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and methodology. International Labour Office, 2012. Accessed 11/17/2016. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf
 Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. International Labour Office, 2014. Accessed 11/18/2016. http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/publications/profits-of-forced-labour-2014/lang–en/index.htm
 Michael Grothaus, “How Google is Fighting Sex Trafficking with Big Data”, Fast Company, May 14, 2013. Accessed 11/18/2016. https://www.fastcompany.com/3009686/how-google-is-fighting-sex-trafficking-with-big-data
 “Hotline Statistics”, National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 2015. Accessed 11/17/2016. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/states
 Interview with Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project. Palantir. January 2014. Accessed 11/17/2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgDi9poJW0c
 “Hotline FAQs”, National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Accessed 11/17/2016. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/faqs/hotline-faqs
 “Polaris Project Launches Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network”, Polaris Project, April 9, 2013. Accessed 11/17/2016. https://polarisproject.org/news/press-releases/polaris-project-launches-global-human-trafficking-hotline-network