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Weaponizing Data in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Mar 4, 2021 7:15:00 AM

When you think of anti-trafficking work, data is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But in our fight against human trafficking, data coupled with innovative technology has proved to be a formidable weapon.

It is a horrifying fact that men, women, and children are trafficked. Across the globe, people desperate for an opportunity are deceived and trafficked for sex, domestic work, hard labor, and even for their organs. Since the industry is criminal and hidden in nature, knowing what to look for is crucial in defeating it. The signs of trafficking, as well as the profile of victims, can be very different from country to country. This is one factor in human trafficking that leads us to place such importance on collecting good data—and using it in powerful ways. 

Red flags are raised in Southeast Asia

Shanni* was spotted by Love Justice transit monitors standing alone looking concerned and fearful. Dressed in village garb, she was tightly clutching a bag on her lap. After about a half hour, she began wandering around the bus station, seemingly searching for someone. Shanni continued to look lost and bewildered, so Love Justice transit monitors decided to approach her and ask if she needed assistance.

Because of key red flags that our monitors observed, they felt finding out more about her was warranted. As Shanni shared her story, more red flags were uncovered. She had met her boyfriend, Batin*, recently at a wedding in a nearby village. Before the wedding festivities were over, he had asked her for her cell phone number so they could stay in contact with each other. They talked frequently after Shanni returned to her own village until eventually, he won her trust. Batin asked Shanni if she would be his girlfriend.


As her trust grew, Shanni told Batin about her family’s impoverished existence. As any caring boyfriend would, he offered to help. He told Shanni he could get her a job, and he promised her a salary of what amounted to about $150 per month. Shanni knew a good monthly salary like that would help her family tremendously. Even though she knew nothing about the job itself, she trusted Batin because he loved her. And when he proved his devotion by proposing to her, Shanni decided to elope with him.

Not too many days later, Shanni packed up a change of clothes, what little money she had, and her cell phone, and then she ran away to meet Batin. They slept together at a cabin he knew of on the first night of their trip. The next morning, Batin told Shanni to tell anyone who asked that they were already married.

A day later, they arrived at the station. Batin told her the area they were in was very dangerous and that it would be safest if he kept her money and cell phone. Shanni agreed and gave everything to him except for her bag of clothes. Batin led her to a bench and told her to wait there while he went to buy them something to eat. That’s where our transit monitors found Shanni and began suspecting she was in danger of being trafficked.

Recognizing more red flags in Shanni’s story, the transit monitors were not surprised to learn that Batin had not returned. Now Shanni, frustrated and afraid, just wanted to go home. The transit team made sure she was aware of the dangers of human trafficking. After contacting her guardian, they fed her and bought her a return ticket home. When Shanni arrived safely back in her village, she contacted the Love Justice transit monitoring team to thank them for rescuing her from the dangerous situation she had been in.

More red flags in Africa

Meanwhile, on another continent, things can look very different. While the same forms of insidious trafficking are present in Africa, transit monitors working there have their own set of red flags to be aware of. Because trafficking for hard labor and debt bondage are common in this part of the world, boys and young men are often vulnerable.

In the southeastern part of Africa, a family with two fifth-grade boys was living in extreme poverty. The entire area had been affected, and this family was not the only one going hungry. The parents were desperate to provide for their children, so when a middle-aged man named Thambo* approached them and offered their boys seasonal farming work, the parents readily accepted the generous opportunity. Shortly after, Thambo and the two young boys set out on their journey.

Thambo had spent the previous five years going to work on farms during the months of September through April. He traveled several hundred miles each year in order to earn money as a seasonal laborer on the farms that needed workers. On this trip, however, he was stopped by Love Justice transit monitors who recognized significant red flags.
Aware of the need for laborers during these months, our monitors know that groups of men or boys traveling together is a potential red flag. When Thambo was observed traveling with two young boys who were old enough to work, the team recognized the possible danger and stopped him. During questioning, the transit monitors learned that they were traveling to an area known for bonded labor. This, coupled with it being the season when farm labor is needed, led the monitors to suspect the two young boys were at high risk of being trafficked.

The right red flags lead to rescues

Our border monitors are trained to vigilantly look for these specific red flags that point to suspicious behavior. In these two cases, staff members stationed on different continents recognized two distinct sets of red flags related to two unique victim profiles, resulting in crucial interceptions before damage was done.

The red flags that our transit monitors are armed with are a result of diligent data collection. The data that leads to the red flags comes from interviews with victims and traffickers, police and case reports, information from our investigative team, and various informants. A wealth of information is used to set these flags.

In addition, we employ machine learning, a cutting-edge form of artificial intelligence, to weight the flags. Because of this technology, transit monitors know which red flags are indicative of a high risk of trafficking and which ones simply warrant further investigation. They also know which red flags are most relevant to the different parts of the world where we work. 

We are incredibly excited about the ways we can harness the power of this data to further the fight against human trafficking. Our transit monitoring strategy allows us to understand and analyze trends and trafficking networks around the globe that we otherwise wouldn't have access to, as well as share this information with other anti-trafficking organizations in this crucial fight.

Take a closer look at our proven plan to stop traffickers

*Names have been changed for the security and privacy of all those involved. 

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