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New technologies can help in the fight against human trafficking

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Proposed Georgia legislation aimed at cracking down on modern slavery comes during a month when human trafficking is top-of-mind for many. Throughout January, awareness campaigns throughout the U.S. are alerting local communities to National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, an occasion that directs our attention to a problem that’s massive, pervasive — and far too often overlooked. 

According to the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 40.3 million victims of human trafficking, or modern slavery, worldwide — including about 400,000 right here in the U.S. 

This issue has become so widespread because its perpetrators exploit forced labor in a wide variety of industries. They also use a growing number of illicit tactics to execute and conceal their actions when necessary, facilitated in part by a collective lack of awareness and visibility into how specific legal, profit-seeking behaviors can help to enable exploitation. One need only examine recent news stories to observe the many forms this problem takes. 

In November, police found 39 suspected victims of human trafficking in the back of a truck in England, having suffocated during an arduous journey from their home country of Vietnam. In December, a woman in Oregon sued six major hotel chains, alleging that they allowed her to be trafficked and abused on their properties.

Less than a week later, two Silicon Valley giants were named in a lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths. And none of these stories touch on the alarming rate of labor trafficking in the construction industry globally, which the ILO has stated is a leading source of forced and trafficked labor.

The above examples have many causes, from an economic structure that prizes cheap labor, to laws that never conceived of the flexibility or reach of neo-banking and A.I. capacity

that could play a vital role in addressing these issues and saving lives. 

Trafficking is a transnational organized crime that is highly adaptive, and absent equally adaptive efforts to combat it; traffickers can exploit the letter of the law to defy its spirit. We have to challenge ourselves to question if we’ve settled for a quid pro quo that provides personal privacy at the cost of lives globally.

Addressing these cross-sector problems requires cross-sector collaboration among key entities that can leverage knowledge-sets and upgrade policy, implementing emerging technologies that make data easier to process and analyze at scale. 

By working in concert to share data and insights more effectively while enabling relevant parties to act on said data, financial institutions, government institutions, law enforcement officials, and nonprofit organizations around the world could and should form the coalitions needed to create tangible results by innovating faster than the trafficking networks they seek to combat. 

Such a coalition could enable law enforcement and financial institutions to educate themselves on how to strengthen and accelerate information-sharing to track perpetrators who move money across multiple banks, payment platforms and jurisdictions to fund illicit activities, helping stakeholders to collectively track and identify trafficking networks based on their transaction histories.

Currently, it’s more common for each sector to have frustratingly siloed insights, often constrained by well-meaning privacy laws that restrict information sharing. However, if enabled to share with other concerned parties, all involved would be better able to recognize and respond to the patterns and red flags created by trafficking networks in real-time.

An essential component of this network of good actors would be a survivor-centric approach that protects those who traffickers exploit, while also amplifying their voices with technology that helps ensure their testimony leads to stronger convictions. 

In each case, collaboration is strengthened if backed by unified, comprehensive and actionable sets of data. RDC has seen first-hand that financial institutions and multi-national corporations want to do more on this front— both through their investments in A.I. solutions that automate the analysis of financial crime-relevant data, and by taking a more active role in information-sharing that enables more in-depth collaboration between institutions and legal bodies.

We have led discussions with executives of some of the largest global financial institutions and fintechs, and we were encouraged by their genuine desire to work together to better combat these illicit activities. 

There are limits to what information can be shared in the U.S. Even forward-thinking anti-forced-labor legislation — such as the Transparency in Supply Chain Act first enacted in California that ASSET Campaign is the source of— could align and scale with the U.K. Modern Slavery Act upgrade, bringing the financial sector into its supply chain transparency standards. 

That the TISC doesn’t yet incorporate financial institutions further underscores the need for voluntary cross-sector collaboration that financial institutions and other key corporate players are increasingly willing to participate in and support. Regulatory regimes in various regions are also demonstrating a clear will to be a part of the solution in this regard, enabling more urgent information-sharing to better combat human trafficking.

Emerging technologies can play a vital role in strengthening these collaborations, helping eliminate gaps in enforcement while simultaneously aiding in the creation of A.I. models that can mirror and adapt to global supply chain practices. 

Whether attempting to smuggle people across borders, exploit them at hotels, or profit off their forced labor, illicit actors would find it more difficult to conceal their movements and financial transactions from all concerned parties, making their operations riskier and less profitable. This, in turn, would reduce the number of perpetrators who attempt to turn a profit through such terrible means. 

No one measure can eradicate the issue of modern slavery. Still, we now possess both the tools and the willpower to unify a diverse and impactful coalition to combat this problem. As we consider this widespread issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we can help aid millions of potential victims by also spreading awareness of and support for efforts of key stakeholders to eradicate it. 

From public campaigns to internal examinations of how our supply chain and other ecosystems impact this issue, we can all ask more questions and take more action to become a part of the solution rather than contribute unwillingly to the problem. During this important occasion, let’s commit to doing just that. 

Tom Walsh is the CEO of RDC, a software company that provides anti-money laundering solutions and seeks to prevent criminal infiltration of the world’s financial systems through intelligent, automated customer screening. 

Julia Ormond is an Emmy-award winning actress and the Founder & President of the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET) Campaign. In 2005, Julia became the first Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) against trafficking and slavery.


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