Human trafficking is a crime that takes place largely in the shadows.
Victims, who are mostly women and children, often lack legal documentation in the country where they are forced to work or perform sex acts, and many fear reprisals if they go to authorities. Perpetrators, for obvious reasons, take great pains to conceal their behavior by laundering money and keeping their operations quiet. And others who engage in trafficking-related criminal activity — such as individuals looking to connect with trafficked sex workers — also have powerful incentives to hide their participation.
Recently, law enforcement agencies and organizations that help victims of human trafficking have begun using artificial intelligence tools to overcome this lack of visibility. By sorting through data and recognizing patterns faster than any human could, AI tools are helping activists and investigators crack down on buyers of sex, identify trafficking victims and follow illicit money trails.
AI Insights Help Sex Trafficking Investigators Follow the Money
Human trafficking is a $150 billion-per-year criminal industry, putting it in the same league as drug trafficking and other major criminal enterprises. IBM has partnered with law enforcement, global banks and nongovernmental organizations to try to sniff out the money trail that traffickers sometimes leave behind.
IBM worked with the STOP THE TRAFFIK (STT) coalition to develop a new cloud-hosted data hub that allows financial institutions to run AI and machine learning tools against their data sets to detect “specific human trafficking terms and incidents.” AI also allows the data hub to take in open-source data — including thousands of news feeds each day — to help analysts more easily identify the characteristics of human trafficking incidents.
National Nonprofit Uses App to Glean Leads on Victims
In 2016, researchers launched an app called Hotels-50K, with the hope of collecting photographs of 50,000 hotels around the world and then using AI to match up those pictures with online advertisements placed by sex traffickers and their victims. Researchers have shared the app with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and officials there say the tool has given them “leads and information.” However, as of early 2019, it was unclear whether any victims had yet been saved as a direct result of the app, according to Reuters.
Agencies Use Chatbots to Disrupt Sex Trafficking Demand
It’s not enough to identify human trafficking rings, dismantle them and help bring services to the victims. If there’s enough demand, other trafficking operations will soon sprout up.
The New York Times has written about a chatbot called Freedom Signal, created by Seattle Against Slavery, that’s helping more than a dozen U.S. cities push down demand by targeting would-be buyers of sex. Police departments set up fake prostitution ads, and after men start texting the listed phone number, the decoy chatbot imitates a sex worker, having entire conversations about pricing and location. Then, several days later, the chatbot sends the men a notice about sex trafficking, along with a warning that people who show up in response to prostitution ads may face arrest.
Men who receive the notice are 50 to 80 percent less likely to be caught trying to buy sex again, compared with those who do not receive a deterrence notice.