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Technology and human trafficking: Fighting the good fight

· 6 minute read

· 6 minute read

A closer look at the role of technology in prevention efforts

Jump to:

 The big picture

 Why this issue matters

 Understanding human trafficking resources


The big picture

Since 2010, the U.S. federal government has designated the month of January as Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As the U.S. Department of State describes it, the month will be a time to recognize “the efforts of foreign governments, international organizations, anti-trafficking entities, law enforcement officials, survivor advocates, communities of faith, businesses, and private citizens all around the world to raise awareness about human trafficking.”  

One of the ways that awareness is being raised is through digital technology. Businesses, governments, and nonprofits are finding ways to work together as they battle to stop the scourge of human trafficking. They’re also developing and using human trafficking prevention technology in the fight. It’s an essential weapon because the ugly truth is that human traffickers themselves are heavily incorporating digital technology into their criminal activity.  

Why this issue matters

Awareness of human trafficking begins with understanding what it is. Though there are many ways to define it, the Council on Foreign Relations’ description summarizes it well: “the trapping and exploitation of a person using deception, violence, or coercion. It generally takes three main forms: forced labor (which includes sex trafficking), forced marriage, and forced organ removal.

According to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 40.3 million victims globally, with traffickers pulling in at least $150 billion yearly. The ILO also estimates that 68% of human trafficking victims are compelled into forced labor. It’s a major problem in the U.S. as well as overseas. A sad, infuriating case in point: in 2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received an estimated 19,000 reports of child sex trafficking in the United States.  

What anti-trafficking organizations have discovered is that traffickers are increasingly exploiting digital technology to recruit and control their victims. Traffickers can use keywords on social media to identify potential victims and to contact their “customers.” Not surprisingly, there’s evidence that traffickers are also making use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to isolate and track both victims and those willing to pay for them as labor or for sexual exploitation.  

However, AI also can be used as a force for good. It can help track the locations of victims and abusers through the unique lens identifiers in cell phones. Researchers at MIT have developed machine learning algorithms that analyze to determine whether online commercial sex ads might be connected to human traffickers. The anti-trafficking organization Unseen UK uses AI-related technology to help responders on its helpline analyze and detect patterns in data that might reveal trafficking activity. 

But perhaps the most crucial form of human trafficking prevention technology is the connections it can make between organizations fighting this scourge—including nonprofits, governments, and businesses. In 2021, the federal government launched the Center for Countering Human Trafficking, whose work includes investigations, outreach and training, and victim assistance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized how government action is just part of the solution to the problem in his introduction to the State Department’s “2023 Trafficking in Persons Report,” which the State Department released in June:   

“Tackling a global problem like trafficking requires a global coalition, one that cuts across government, business, and civil society. By sharing resources and information, we can better equip front-line stakeholders to track and respond to evolving trafficking trends. By partnering with survivors, we can better establish trauma-informed anti-trafficking policies and strategies.  And by leveraging technology, we can better address the nexus between finance and human trafficking and better detect online exploitation.” 

Resource Center

Human Trafficking Online Toolkits


Close up of professional using cell phone on city street.

Understanding human trafficking resources

For organizations of all kinds that are involved or that want to become involved in the fight to prevent human trafficking, there are plenty of resources and tools available, including various types of human trafficking prevention technology. Organizations and individuals in the battle aren’t fighting alone. Here are two examples of resources and strategies they can put to use:  

Thomson Reuters’ Human Trafficking Resource Center

In October 2023, Thomson Reuters announced that it would be providing the City of Houston’s anti-trafficking toolkitsonline for the free use of cities and other public authorities. Houston’s program has been recognized globally as a model that other cities can follow as they seek to stop human trafficking. The toolkits include step-by-step guides for mobilizing anti-trafficking campaigns, which can save municipalities time and money. They also contain resources, tools, and information that can be used in developing policies and raising awareness. The toolkits are available through Thomson Reuters’ Human Trafficking Resource Center 

Supply chains and human trafficking

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner has been a key leader in his city’s anti-trafficking efforts. The toolkit is one example. Another is the executive order he signed in August 2017 after Hurricane Harvey caused millions of dollars of damage to the city. Much of Houston’s $6 billion-plus budget is used for hiring workers for the city’s capital projects, which can number close to 300 at any one time. As Houston began rebuilding, Mayor Turner and his city realized that the projects would require hiring numerous foreign workers. The executive order established ways that the city could ascertain that no human trafficking was involved in Houston’s rebuilding efforts. Those safeguards include a model contract clause designed to protect workers and a waiver in case a vendor can’t prove that no human trafficking is involved in its workforce.   

Businesses can also use their influence and talents through supply chains to reduce trafficking. Since the mid-2010s, governments worldwide have established transparency regulations that guide companies in ensuring that their vendors aren’t using forced labor, which is often performed by victims of trafficking. One way that companies can help is by developing supply chain audits, which include questionnaires that enterprises can collect from their suppliers. These questionnaires can then be audited to identify possible instances of human trafficking. Audits can use digital data analysis tools—which, in this sense, can be considered a kind of human trafficking prevention technology.  

Human traffickers have been exploiting digital tech to exploit other human beings. But used correctly by organizations of all kinds working in partnership, technology can also help stop these criminals and their brutal, all-too-widespread activities. And those are efforts that can–and must–continue beyond Human Trafficking Prevention Month.  

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