How Google Is Fighting Sex Trafficking With Big Data

By Michael Grothaus for The Fast Company on May 14, 2013—
“For years human traffickers have used the latest technology to profit from the slave trade, but now software engineers at big data companies like Palantir and Salesforce are enabling anti-trafficking organizations to fight back–thanks to a little funding help from Google.

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The latest estimates about human trafficking, which include individuals held against their will in the sex trade and forced laborers in agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing settings, are that at least 21 million people on the planet are currently in slavery. To put that figure in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the entire populations of New York City, London, and Singapore combined. And it’s an industry that generates over $32 billion a year.

I have a particular interest in sex trafficking. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s because I was first exposed to it during the Cannes Film Festival many years ago, only I didn’t realize it at the time. Years after, when I finally made the connection, I began writing a novel about it. Since then, I’ve talked to trafficking victims in Poland and Italy and France. I’ve spoken to a girl who was a source who has disappeared. I know of victims who are so traumatized they hear voices in their heads. In Krakow while researching sex trafficking, I was assaulted and told to leave the city or I would be killed. And in America, I’ve been laughed at when I’ve told people the subject of my novel because many here don’t believe that modern-day slavery exists–or if they do, they think it’s only something that happens in Asia or Eastern Europe or Africa. They have no clue that it goes on in big American cities, and in suburbs, and at truck stops across the country.

The billions of dollars are being made off the backs of people no different than you or I–they’re just living in hell. Slaves in Asia who have literally been born and raised in a rice mill and have never stepped outside of it. Seven-year-old girls abducted in Russia or Brazil or America who are taken to foreign countries where they don’t speak the language and are told that going to the police is pointless, because the police are in on it; that if they try to escape, their family at home will be killed. These are people who don’t even feel like people anymore. They are property. Like your iPhone.

The thing about human trafficking is that it is not as “underground” as you might think a slave trade would be. Human traffickers use the latest technologies to their advantage–and do so exceptionally well. But now, thanks in part to a $3 million grant from Google, a group of three anti-trafficking organizations–Polaris in the U.S., LaStrada International in Eastern Europe, and Liberty Asia–are using innovative technology from big data partners Palantir and Salesforce.com to launch The Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network, which aims to turn the tide in the fight against modern-day slavery.”

To read more, please click here.

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