Google bets on data-sharing to fight human trafficking

By its very nature, human trafficking is a transnational problem: traffickers operate on a global level with little respect for borders or legal jurisdiction. A new initiative funded by Google aims to level the playing field by building a way for anti-trafficking campaigners to share data and better understand the problem of modern slavery. 

At an event hosted in Washington today by the company's in-house think tank, Google Ideas, the formation of the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network was announced. The partnership between anti-trafficking groups in the United States, Europe, and Asia with producers of analytics software has received a $3 million "Global Impact Award" from the search giant.

One of the groups in the partnership -- the Polaris Project --  operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and is already using this data to map trends in trafficking and slavery in the United States. The group will now work to share data with groups including the pan-European group La Strada International and Liberty Asia, as well as working to set up hotlines in other countries and integrate them into the global system. 

At today's event, Matt Friedman, the technical director of Liberty Asia gave an example of how data collection can be critical to anti-trafficking field work:

In the early days, many of the donors and civil society partners said we don’t have time for data collection, we have to just jump right in and go and do something to help these people. […] When I was living and working in Bangladesh, there are 140 million people and many of them are living on a dollar a day, so our assumption was that everyone was vulnerable for slavery in Bangladesh simply because poverty propagates this vulnerability.

So finally we did a survey of 450 women who had been trafficked, and found some very interesting things. First of all, we found that there were certain pockets where trafficking took place – not all across the country. The most critical factor in those pockets were whether or not there was a trafficker. The only difference between one village and another was whether there was a history of trafficking.

The second thing we identified was that one of the biggest vulnerabilities we found were families that were in a poor community but were beginning to rise up above the others. The emerging middle class were getting a sense of prosperity, they were taking risks, and as a result of that, those are the ones that were getting trafficked. It wasn’t the poorest of the poor. For years we had been going to the poor, not realizing that the people we needed to focus on were the Middle Class.

Overall, it was a highly optimistic event, with several speakers arguing that while at least 20 million people in the world still live in slavery, there's an unprecedented international focus on the problem and major recent breakthroughs in understanding how trafficking works.

One note of caution was sounded by Jason Payne, head of philantropy at Palantir Technologies, the Silicon Valley firm that worked with Polaris to develop its analytics:

The biggest challenge I see us facing is on privacy and civil liberties. Just because someone’s human rights have been eviscerated, doesn’t mean that their civil liberties and electronic rights can be eviscerated. When we talk about building an international collaboration of data, it’s very important to think about the responsibility we have to make sure that only people who need to know have access to that information.

Especially when we start to talk about personal identifiable information, phone numbers, names, and even more so, health information – HIV status, etc. – it’s absolutely crucial that we control that information. For example, La Strada Czech may need to the name and phone number of someone. La Strada International probably doesn’t need to know that data. They just need to know the neighborhood. […] The most crucial part of this global alliance is ensuring proper control of information.

It was interesting that was one of the technology developers rather than one of the activists who was raising this point. But it was reassuring that even in a celebration of the power of Big Data, there was acknowledgment that information can be a dangerous thing, even when those using it have the best of intentions.