Big Data Stares Down the Human Slave Trade

By Mark Yarm
Published on December 17, 2013 in Wired

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From burner phones to Bitcoin, human traffickers stay at the front of the tech curve. But outside the US, many anti-trafficking agencies are still using 20th-century methods: spreadsheets and paper. That makes sharing and analyzing data almost impossible. “Pushing people toward cloud-based systems is imperative,” says Sarah Jakiel, deputy director of the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, DC.

Now Polaris is getting the chance, thanks to a new partnership. The Global Human Trafficking Network, which launched in April, links Polaris to Europe’s La Strada International and the fledgling Liberty Asia so that they can mine shared data about sex and labor trafficking—and hopefully learn more about where and how victims are recruited (see chart above).

Polaris already has been able to shed light on some newly discovered participants in the human-slave trade in the US: gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Zetas. “We’re interested to see where gang activity is happening,” Jakiel says. “Is there something law enforcement doesn’t already know?” If they don’t already, they will soon.