Apps against trafficking

  • Letters
  • Friday, 20 Dec 2019

THE death of 39 Vietnamese migrants discovered in Britain on Oct 23 cast new light on human trafficking. The United Nations estimates that 40 million men, women and children have been forced into bonded labour, child marriages and prostitution. The Malaysian Bar Council reports that there are roughly five million undocumented migrants in Malaysia.

It is hard to imagine that freedom is elusive to pockets in society as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that human trafficking is now one of the world’s most lucrative organised crimes, generating more than US$150bil (RM621.1bil) a year with two-thirds of its victims, or 25 million people, coming from East Asia and the Pacific.

Human trafficking is considered modern-day slavery and demands a combination of interventions to stem its flow. In Malaysia, the discovery of migrants’ camps and mass graves in Wang Kelian, Perlis, in 2015 remains a bane. The coalition of Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Council (Mapo) and Joining Hands Against Modern Slavery recorded 543 victims placed in shelters in the first half of this year, compared with 1,474 in 2018 and 2,945 in 2017.

The statistics do demonstrate Malaysia’s resolve to overhaul its foreign workers management system and enforcement training to reduce human trafficking. But the paradox about human trafficking is that many victims are hidden in plain sight and society is simply reluctant to get involved.

There are two free apps that emerged in recent years to rally public support to fight against human trafficking. The apps are Be My Protector and Stop App and both provide the basics needed to submit reports with the option to remain anonymous or allow your data to be stored. In fact, the Be My Protector app that is available across South-East Asia received 300 tip-offs on alleged human trafficking from April 2018 to February 2019.

Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and geolocation can improve the reach of such apps. The Stop App was further improved through a collaborative process between IBM Ireland and the Stop The Traffik coalition to allow submissions to be made from anywhere in the world, quickly and anonymously via video, text and photos. And it can be done in eight languages. The submissions are reviewed by expert analysts who can then alert authorities if the circumstances warrant action.

The Stop App is now the first-ever international data hub that connects NGOs, law enforcement and financial institutions. These include Liberty Shared, Europol, Western Union, Barclays, and Lloyd’s Banking Group. This Traffik Analysis (TA) Hub enables members to collect, share and analyse data in the digital cloud. AI is applied to analyse clues and unexpected patterns of data that betray the movements and machinations of trafficking rings.

The TA Hub is probably the first always-on AI resource that bridges public, private and not-for-profit sectors worldwide. With 100,000 meta-data rows, it is one of the largest repositories of data describing possible trafficking-related activity. One could not have imagined this to be a reality till a few years ago.

The TA Hub will enable anti-trafficking analysts to predict future incidents of human trafficking before they occur. For example, if there are a certain number of incidents reported during a specific time of year with a similar financial pattern, they could better predict these occurrences happening in advance.

The genesis of the tech lies in using AI’s natural language processing capabilities. After gathering insights about what analysts were primarily interested in learning, IBM trained Watson AI in 2019 on what terms were most important. Watson will learn more terms over time, using additional public data.

The combination of training the model specifically for the human trafficking domain with both private and public data will allow NGOs, banks, law enforcement and intelligence officers to go beyond what they currently know and bring perpetrators to justice.

Technology has made it easier for us to combat human trafficking. We can all do our part by downloading the Stop App or Be My Protector on our smartphones to report suspicious activities. Together we can uphold the basic human right to freedom.

HARRIET GREEN , Chairman and CEO, Asia Pacific, IBM

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