April 8, 2019 / 8:24 PM / 4 months ago

UK royal, US ambassador tout tech tools to tackle human trafficking

VIENNA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s Princess Eugenie and U.S. anti-trafficking Ambassador John Richmond joined forces on Monday, calling for technologies from smartphone apps to blockchain to disrupt the modern-day slave trade as more victims worldwide are exploited online.

FILE PHOPTO: Princess Eugenie visits the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital to open the new Stanmore Building, in London, Britain March 21, 2019. David Mirzoeff/ Pool via REUTERS

From recruiting and advertising on social media platforms to controlling victims via their mobile phones and laundering money using cryptocurrencies, modern technology has transformed the business of trafficking, experts told a conference in Austria.

Rising internet use - at least 4 billion people were online in 2018 up from 2.5 billion in 2012 - means more potential victims and a larger pool of possible customers, said the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Yet, technology also has a key role to play in keeping up to speed with major criminal networks and tackling human trafficking, civil servants, companies and charities said at the event in Vienna hosted by the OSCE - Europe’s security watchdog.

As the world strives to meet a U.N. goal of ending slavery by 2030, anti-trafficking advocates say tech tools could turn the tide in the global drive to end a trade estimated to control 40 million people and generate annual profits of $150 billion.

“Technology can and should be our vanguard in combating trafficking,” said Eugenie - granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth - who in 2017 founded the Anti-Slavery Collective in Britain.

“I have learned about how blockchain is having a huge impact on supply chain management, and how an app in Britain can help the public report modern slavery at car washes,” she added.

Coca-Cola Co (KO.N) and the U.S. State Department last year launched a project using blockchain’s digital ledger in a push to stop workers being abused, while a British app uncovered 930 possible cases of modern slavery at car washes in five months.

Tech Against Trafficking - a coalition of technology firms, civil society groups and international institutions - earlier this year identified more than 260 anti-slavery tools including facial recognition software and artificial intelligence (AI).

Yet several experts said technology is not a silver bullet and spoke of the difficulty of gathering legal evidence against traffickers as well as gaps in laws as regards trafficking.

“Everything we do in the legislative space is always at least one step behind technological development,” said Petra Schneebauer, Austria’s national anti-trafficking coordinator.

Richmond, who took up his post at the end of last year, also highlighted the fact that many of the world’s trafficking victims - whether on farms, brothels and brick kilns - would prove tough to identify and protect through modern technology.

“There is no fast-forward button, no magic tech wand that we can wave to make everything better,” he said. “There is not an algorithm or app that is going to stop human trafficking.”

“But there are tech tools that can help people to do their job better,” Richmond told the conference. “This is the slow, grinding, day-in, day-out work that can help make a difference.”

Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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