Data project aims to stop human trafficking before it occurs: organizers

(This Oct. 18 story has been corrected to fix last paragraph to show Liberty Global is anti-trafficking group)

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Computer giant IBM Corp, financial services company Western Union Co and European police launched a project Thursday to share financial data which they said may, in future, be able to predict human trafficking before it occurs.

The shared data hub will collect information on money moving around the world and compare it to known ways that traffickers move their illicit gains, highlighting red flags signaling potential trafficking, organizers said.

“We will build and aggregate that material, using IBM tools, into an understanding of hot spots and routes and trends,” said Neil Giles, a director at global anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik that is participating in the project.

Data collection, digital tools and modern technology are the latest weapons in the fight against human trafficking, estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global business, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The U.N. has set a goal of 2030 for ending forced labor and modern slavery worldwide, with more than 40 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world.

Certain patterns and suspicious activity might trigger a block of a transaction or an investigation into possible forced labor or sex slavery, organizers said.

The project will utilize IBM’s Internet cloud services as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning to compare data and to spot specific trafficking terms, said Sophia Tu, director of IBM Corporate Citizenship.

With a large volume of high-quality data, the hub one day may predict trafficking before it happens, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“You can’t do it today because we’re in the process of building out that amount of data and those capabilities, but it’s in the roadmap for what we want to do,” she said.

IBM has been counting on its artificial intelligence and cloud businesses as it attempts to reverse years of revenue declines.

But neither has met analyst expectations, with results this week showing slowed sales of cognitive software business, which includes artificial intelligence, and flat cloud revenues.

And while law enforcement is teaming up with banks and data specialists to chase trafficking, experts have cautioned that it can be a cat-and-mouse game in which traffickers quickly move on to new tactics to elude capture.

Also, less than 1 percent of the estimated $1.5 trillion plus laundered by criminals worldwide each year through the financial system is frozen or confiscated, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Along with IBM and Western Union, participants include Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency, anti-trafficking group Liberty Global and British banks Barclays and Lloyds, organizers said.