Can better data analytics slow the fastest-growing illegal trade in the world?

One day, teenager Ann* was at sports practice when someone handed her an energy drink. She—and some of her teammates—woke up in a truck that drove for hours to a large tented brothel. For the next three years, she and hundreds of other girls were forced into sex work, servicing dozens of “clients” daily. The global breadth of human trafficking is staggering: it is the third-largest and fastest-growing criminal activity in the world.

Globally, the number of estimated victims range from 20 to 40 million. The US State Department reports that an estimated one million people are trafficked across America’s borders annually; 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.

“In the late 18th century, people around the world campaigned to outlaw this ancient trade in human beings,” said Caroline Taylor, IBM Global Markets VP. Legislation was passed, bilateral treaties were signed, the human slave trade was outlawed. “Abolitionists thought this was the beginning of the end, that this global trade in human beings would stop. Sadly, it wasn’t and it didn’t.”

Today, human trafficking is notably problematic for law enforcement to identify—let alone prosecute. According to the State Department, 2016 saw just 14,894 prosecutions and 9,071 convictions. When children like Ann and her teammates first disappear, their families and police often search for them with no success. The issue is that there’s a missing link between the kidnapping and the human trafficking.

Every supply chain needs a product. Every business needs a broker. Without data and the power of analytics, finding the link back down the supply chain, through the broker, to the potential source is nearly impossible. You can’t stop what you can’t see. But analyzing the data enables us to see; to make those connections. That’s where IBM comes in. Taylor chairs the board of trustees at non-profit STOP THE TRAFFIK (STT), which began 15 years ago as an awareness campaign with the intent of expanding into prevention. And that prevention has significantly expanded thanks to its relationship with IBM.

Learn more about how IBM is putting smart to work for the world

In 2016, STT launched an app that enables anyone in the world to submit information on suspicious activity. IBM has provided a grant to redevelop the app for a better user experience and expanded functionality, including a multilingual chatbot. IBM has also provided STT with software, cloud tools, and the expertise of data analysts and architects to help advance its work.

“It’s been a learning journey from small beginnings,” said Neil Giles, Director of STT’s Centre for Intelligence-Led Prevention. “The world is still waking up to how technology can fight crime.”

IBM has worked with STT and like-minded data-oriented nonprofits and NGOs over the last three years, contributing nearly $2 million in resources.

“IBM’s contributions of data analytics expertise and technology made an immediate impact on the effectiveness of STOP THE TRAFFIK’s essential work,” said IBM VP for Corporate Citizenship and IBM Foundation President Jennifer Ryan Crozier.

In 2016, STT identified eight hotspots on a Nigeria-Libya-Italy trafficking route, and launched a geo-targeted social media campaign to draw attention to the risk of trafficking in each area. That same year, the group teamed up with Western Union, Europol, and law enforcement in three European countries to bring down a ring of 32 traffickers, according to STT’s Giles. And in May 2017, IBM worked with US-based nonprofit DeliverFund to deliver definitive evidence to local police that resulted in convictions and 40-year prison sentences for four human trafficking suspects that had been under suspicion for almost three years.

Applying tech to the problem might just be the thing that disrupts traffickers enough to make it no longer profitable for them, according to Taylor.

“It’s like with smallpox: you disrupt the contagion,” she said. The question is whether the disruption can be large enough.

What’s next: big data in action

Ann is one of tens of millions of victims around the globe; their stories are often as complex and tragic as the issue itself. Her story is also the story of the profitability of one person. A trafficker can exploit one individual in multiple ways. A child can be moved into the back of a kitchen in a restaurant. That child can be moved into a sweatshop and exploited as cheap labor. The child can be moved behind closed doors to serve as a domestic slave. The child can be forced to commit crime. And—horrifically—the child’s organs can be harvested and sold to the highest bidder.

Traffickers take one individual for one purpose, and then move and repurpose them. And then do that again. And again. It’s imperative that every trafficked individual find their way to freedom, and a new life. But STT focuses on prevention using this unique methodology—in partnership with IBM—because, Taylor said, “we will never rescue our way out of this crime.”

And it’s precisely because of individuals like Ann that STOP THE TRAFFIK and IBM are working to build an intelligence hub that will collect and analyze data from multiple, varied sources, and serve as a global communications hub and data clearinghouse for nonprofit, public, private, and law enforcement partners.

“This is big data in action,” Taylor said. “This is what data-driven really means.”

Since human trafficking is such a colossal illegal economy, one of the project’s key factors is collaboration with financial institutions. By making it easier for the financial world to connect human trafficking with money-laundering activities, the technology will have the chance to make a dent on trafficking on a global scale, according to Crozier. Taylor agrees that the potential for impact is enormous.

“We can change the way the world works,” she said. “People shouldn’t be bought and sold. It’s time to stop.”

*Not her real name