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Non-profits are teaming up with tech companies and law-enforcement agencies, using techniques such as facial recognition, algorithm scans, big data and hackathons to tackle trafficking. (loops7/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Non-profits are teaming up with tech companies and law-enforcement agencies, using techniques such as facial recognition, algorithm scans, big data and hackathons to tackle trafficking. (loops7/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

THE TRAFFICKED

U.S. groups to offer tech expertise to help thwart traffickers Add to ...

This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Two American anti-trafficking groups are expanding into Canada this year, intent on using technology to better analyze and detect a crime that is notoriously under-reported but that the RCMP calls “widespread.”

So far, this country lacks broad data collection and has faced international criticism for its un-even response to what the FBI estimates is the third-most profitable illicit business in the world, behind drugs and arms trafficking. In the United States, innovative efforts are under way to track the human traffickers, study the problem and support victims.

Among the leaders are the two organizations extending their reach into Canada: Thorn, a Los Angeles-based non-profit focused on the intersection of technology and child sexual exploitation, and Polaris Project, which runs a national hotline on trafficking and uses masses of data to better understand the crime. The latter will team up with a new Toronto-based human-trafficking co-ordination centre to offer expertise.

“It’s fair to say that Canada is a number of years behind the U.S.” in tackling the issue, said Sarah Jakiel, chief programs officer for Polaris.

While some human trafficking globally is for forced labour, most is for sexual exploitation, the United Nations says. In Canada, most trafficking is domestic, and a Globe and Mail investigation this month showed indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected as victims.

Now technology – which has helped human traffickers boost their business, expanding their ability to snare victims and to market them online – is being deployed in new ways to identify and catch predators. Non-profits are teaming up with tech companies and law-enforcement agencies, using techniques such as facial recognition, algorithm scans, big data and hackathons to tackle trafficking.

“These children deserve an army of people who are working to get ahead of this – who are leveraging the latest technology to stop and prevent abuse,” said Julie Cordua, Thorn’s chief executive officer.

Thorn – co-founded by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore – has developed several tools in recent years. It runs a national survey of survivors of child sex trafficking, which asks them about how technology was used to recruit, groom and sell them online. From that, they learned that kids are unlikely to pick up the phone and call for help – partly because their trafficker could be nearby. But they would text for help. So Thorn partnered with Polaris to start a “BeFree” text line, a number that people can discreetly text to get help or connect with local services.

Another effort is a trafficking investigation tool called Spotlight. It uses algorithms that comb through open Web data, including the thousands of escort ads on classified sites, to predict and detect where there’s a risk that minors are being trafficked. It is working in 49 states, with 1,800 officers using the tool. Ms. Cordua says it has identified 360 victims since it began in the spring of 2015. “That’s what we’re looking to expand in Canada,” she said.

It also opened an innovation lab in Silicon Valley in November – backed by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft – that is researching new technologies to fight child abuse.

Polaris, based in Washington, is mining data to deepen insights into trafficking. It runs a confidential national hotline, which gives it one of the largest datasets in the world on trafficking, and says it has identified nearly 25,000 “potential victims” since it began in 2007. It has also received calls from Canada – 478 to date, including 106 cases of human trafficking that occurred domestically. Nearly three-quarters of those cases were related to sex trafficking.

That data has deepened understanding into trafficking networks and patterns, and helped identify where there are key gaps in services. Polaris expanded into Mexico last year, and now is looking north. It plans to team up with a new national co-ordination centre based in Toronto, which will be launched this spring, to expand a hotline for people who are being trafficked or exploited and for other members of the public to report suspected trafficking situations.

“There are a lot of ways to immediately translate activities and ideas from the U.S. landscape to Canada that will be smart and successful,” Ms. Jakiel of Polaris said. These include working with hotel chains to raise awareness, and with major banks to better understand the financial footprint of traffickers.

Thomson Reuters Special Services (TRSS), also based in Washington, uses data and analytics to provide information and develop tools (Woodbridge Co. Ltd. is the controlling shareholder of its parent and also owns The Globe and Mail). One of its efforts is concentrated on human trafficking. It works with law enforcement and partners such as Thorn and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to detect signs someone is being trafficked.

For example, it can search through social media sites, such as Facebook or Instagram, for red flags of trafficking, through Backpage.com online ads, or through the dark Web, where conversations and IP addresses are more hidden.

It is also sifting through language to determine key words, images – and emoticons – that point to possible criminal activity. “There’s a whole other language of how it’s talked about, like a code,” said Melanie Getreuer, TRSS lead on strategy and innovation.

Regarding emoticons, these could include crowns and wands, references to king and queens – language that glorifies the business and suggests the presence of a pimp and someone who is being trafficked. “There is a language of symbols, as well as key words, to describe the business. It’s very similar to everyday slang,” she said.

If the TRSS team finds suspicious activity, it reports it to law enforcement.

In 2012, for instance, it picked up a spike in activity around the Super Bowl, and reported that to police, who then uncovered a sex trafficking ring and rescued nine girls. Other events, Ms. Getreuer said, linked with increases in trafficking include “a major sporting event, a major trade show [such as the Consumer Electronics Show], a major sales event … the idea being that you’ve got all these people coming from out of town for a particular event, typically men, and then there’s an aspect of it about wining and dining that includes this [trafficking] aspect of it, unfortunately.”

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