I am the first to acknowledge that it is really rather easy to sit in a hotel bar, a glass of decent Pinot Noir readily to hand, and think that something really ought to be done about human trafficking, and then let more immediate issues take priority.
It is also easy, when the numbers one deals with daily – Petabytes of data; billions of Dollars, Sterling or Euros in investments and spending; the atomic level, nanometre geometries of semiconductor devices – are all so mind-boggling that somewhere between 20 and 45 million seems rather trivial.
But that is the estimate of the number people being trafficked around the world for someone else’s financial gain during a year.
'Doing something about it’ has become the lifelong cause of Sherrie Caltagirone, Executive Director of the Global Emancipation Network. But her version of 'doing something’ steps away from the classic model of leading marches and organising media-led campaigns – good as they might be. Her strategy is to use technology to catch the traffickers, the same type of technology that the traffickers themselves employ to conduct their business.
That is why she one of the featured users at the recent Splunk .Conf18 conference, held in Orlando’s Disneyworld resort. Splunk is one of the Network’s main partners, along with Microsoft for its Azure cloud services, GitHub to secure is rather sensitive codebase and Dark Owl for it capabilities in penetrating the recesses of the Dark Web, amongst others in the vendor community.
Now she is looking for more, and different, partners, particularly across Europe where a goodly percentage of the trafficking takes place these days. The difference she is seeking can be found amongst the technology user community. For example the banks that fund and trade the money involved, and the businesses – especially the hotel, restaurant, entertainment, agriculture and cleaning services trades – that employ the trafficked individuals.
The vendors and niche service providers that service these markets are also partner targets, and are well placed to lend a hand, says Caltagirone:
I'd like to start pushing the fight further into the private space. That’s the financial sector, transportation, hotels, that sort of thing, the people who are making decisions to stop trafficking there. We need to give them the tools they need in order to do that. And we have a few tools in the pipeline right now to help do that.
These are available free of charge, and it will always be that way. This is a moral point for her. That being said, as all the tools are available in the cloud, the Network may move to offering them to interested third parties as a service, and because they expect the scale to get much larger, there could be a small charge to cover processing.
This is a big, global problem
So far, the tools developed to fight human trafficking have only been made available to law enforcement and similar government agencies, and really they only focus on domestic sex trafficking. The difference with the Network is that it is pitching squarely at global trafficking because it is a global business involving men, women, children, and both sex and labour trafficking, as well as the exploitation of refugees.
Caltagirone now wants to target the non-profit organisations, the ones at the forefront of victim services, such as the hotlines in the UK that aim to stop the traffic runs, as well as businesses in the private sector. The goal is to equip them to tackle trafficking at scale.
One of the key sources of help, of course, is access to data, so partners that can help in that direction can be very helpful. The number and variety of sources is growing, especially in the labour trafficking area, but she is looking for more, especially outside of the USA. It also means that the Network is already embedded into the Dark Web, working with partners with the expertise to identify components in the trafficking chains.
Some of the data is only available legally to certain segments of the Network’s user base, for example access to financial data is highly restricted and only available within a chain of custody. So it has to operate in different ways for different user groups.
This is then where both Microsoft and Splunk come into play. All the collected data is stored in Microsoft Azure, and from there it is pushed into Splunk where it analysed. This process, for example, helps identify the links between the different datasets that can demonstrate the `trading relationships’ between trafficking operations.
This can be particularly useful in helping to identify those leaders in the trafficking business that might try to hide behind a mask of business respectability.
This obviously then begs an important question: does this put the Network in a difficult position, legally? Caltagirone says:
So the way that we do it is that we are providing data to law enforcement in the form of a tip-off. So here's the data, what you need to do is check this out. But they're actually the one's looking at the data on our platform themselves. They are looking at all original source data that's accredited. There's a provenance on it, so they can go out and independently verify everything on their own.”
There's all sorts of liability questions that come into play so we are very careful with that. We have some fantastic pro bono legal support that helps us answer some of those sorts of questions. And we also talked to other organisations who have encountered legal issues and sort of tried to learn from their mistakes.
She admits this is an area that has some grey tinges to, especially where different countries have different laws or interpretations of laws. But as she observed, this really only comes into play when law enforcement is part of the equation.
What she is trying to do now is stretch this to prompt more businesses, where trafficking is part of the employment chain, to examine their own data more closely in order to identify where they are unwittingly contributing to the traffickers’ profits. Choking the trade is as good – arguably quicker and more effective – as using the labyrinthine fastidiousness of the legal process.
The Network takes particular care to make sure that a human is never able to modify the evidence. There is a clear chain of custody, and there's data provenance that can be demonstrated. Legislative efforts are also being made to clarify what is admissible in court as evidence so that private organisations such as the Network can legally assist law enforcement, effectively act as an accepted `expert witness’. But it shows one of the issues - that law enforcement doesn't have the resources or the technology available that they need to do this job well, and at scale.
GDPR as 'good guy'
In this context Caltagirone sees GDPR – and it’s growing number of equivalents around the world - as a potential ally rather than a hindrance. The battle, then between privacy as a citizen and the overwhelming public interest to collect some of the data. One big question here is then `who owns the data’, the individual or the website that holds it? And if the data is about trafficking, is it the trafficker or the many traffickees? If the public interest can be established there is a case that the data can be collected. She notes:
I don't think that a victim of human trafficking is going to sue for us collecting their information.
As for law enforcement organisations getting snooty about being helped in this way and defending their patch, she says the opposite is true. Because they are so under-resourced and under-staffed they realise they need help. In practice, the number of anti-trafficking units around the world is very small:
We have 15 to 20 different things to help them with their analyst workflow that we're putting under one pane of glass and presenting free of charge.
One of the big areas of current and future development for the Network, and one where more vendor partners would be most welcome, is in online image analysis. Traffickers often advertise their `wares’ under the guises of `respectable’ employment agencies, and often show pictures of the individuals being trafficked. Out in the Dark Web it can be more explicit, particularly where women and children are trafficked into the sex trade.
It is now possible to ID individuals being trafficked and track their movement by comparing datasets from different sources. What then becomes important is the ability to gain access to private data sets that can enrich the data. That means tracking down phone numbers, addresses, and details of who owns what. This, she says, comes best through partnerships:
Partners can choose to share with other people who they are legally allowed to share with, and it's completely restricted and secure. And instead of log files, we're looking at trafficking advertisements, for example, and processing it that way. I think we are the only organisation using Splunk to organise and collect data on images at this point. So that's a really key use case.
It works by using Splunk to examine and analyse the data stream. In the sex trafficking space, for every text out there's an average of eight photos associated with it. So the images have a lot of weight. And they often embed text information in it that we need to extract. We are trying to bring it all under a single pane of glass. Previously, an analyst would have to go out to 10 different services to get the same information. Yeah, Splunk is really powerful at advocating and collecting data for us.
It is easy to say that human trafficking has always been with us. Yes, ancient Rome and Athens were built on and by slaves. In later years, so was much of the UK and the USA. And while we can sit and say `it’ll never happen to me’ don’t believe it. for given the state of turmoil and upheaval going on in the world right now (which a sensible gambler would bet on it getting much worse) then being trafficked is a possibility for any and all of us.
So why not try and stop it, kill it stone dead? We do have the technology to choke off the trade, as well as ID the perpetrators. Maybe it IS the place for every IT vendor to offer something – be it product, technology or brainpower.
OK, so I’m off the soapbox now…..but it doesn’t change the way I feel.