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Tech wars

5th July 2022 | Modern slavery

The Clewer Initiative

Technology has helped and hindered the fight against modern slavery.

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The World Day against Trafficking in Persons was initiated by the United Nations (UN) in 2013. It was established to raise awareness of victims of human trafficking and promote and protect their rights. This year’s theme is exploring the role technology plays as a tool that can both enable and impede human trafficking.

This is so timely. The plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees this year has highlighted the potential for technology to be used for good and bad. Initially, technology was championed as a way to connect vulnerable refugees with willing host families. All too quickly, however, this turned sour and we heard of numerous gangs and criminals using social media and technology to lure refugees to their homes and exploit them. Some technological platforms promised to check the credibility of the people making the offer and keep a record of all activity, but many did not.

In general, the internet and digital platforms have given traffickers and criminal gangs numerous new tools to recruit, exploit, and control victims. They can reach vulnerable individuals and make incredible promises, enticing them to leave the safety of their homes and travel to unknown places. The dark web has enabled traffickers to create an international web of deceit which is difficult for law enforcement to penetrate. As well as identifying, grooming and recruiting victims through social media, e-mails and messaging services, traffickers also use the technology to advertise services provided by victims and child photographical material.

Perpetrators are able to operate anonymously and with great speed and effectiveness. It is all too easy. Despite this, technology can also be harnessed for good. Large technology companies are working on tools, using artificial intelligence and machine learning, to spot illicit trafficking rings online and police forces are getting more sophisticated at ploughing through data to identify and stop criminal gangs.

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For example, in May, the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) coordinated an online, joint action day targeting criminal networks that are grooming Ukrainian refugees for sexual and labour exploitation. Law enforcement authorities from 14 EU Member States took part in this ‘hackathon’ and in particular, monitored posts offering help to refugees for transportation, accommodation and work. They reviewed 125 online platforms, identified 9 suspected human traffickers and 9 possible victims and initiated 15 new investigations. 93 officers participated in the day and 351 persons/usernames were checked. While encouraging, the sheer number of people involved demonstrates how labour intensive and pain-staking it is to detect modern slavery and human trafficking online.

More positively, the internet and digital tools can be leveraged to great effect in terms of awareness-raising and providing support to potential victims of modern slavery. Within days of the war in Ukraine beginning, modern slavery organisations were developing apps and using the internet to communicate directly with vulnerable refugees to warn them of the danger of people traffickers. They encouraged refugees to use their phones as a way of keeping in touch with others and intelligence gathering. For example, Stop the Traffik outlined eight things to remember when travelling and number 5 was – “if someone offers you transportation, take a picture of them and their ID, their vehicle and registration and share it with your friends/family.” This is a simple way in which mobile phone technology can protect vulnerable people.

As an organisation, we have seen first-hand, the potential mobile phone apps have to encourage the reporting of modern slavery. The private sector, charities and statutories must work together, like The Clewer Initiative did in its development of the Safe Car Wash app, to harness the power of technology for good and beat the criminals who are currently using it to harm vulnerable people.

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