LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Groups fighting slavery must make better use of technologies such as satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to beat tech-savvy human traffickers, a data expert said on Thursday.
New technologies including complex cryptocurrencies and mobile apps are fuelling the modern-day slave trade by enabling traffickers to ensnare more victims, expand their illicit empires and outfox law enforcement, experts say.
But digital tools can be turned against traffickers, said Andrew Zolli, head of social initiatives at Planet Labs, a space and AI company in the United States.
“Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right,” he said, quoting American singer Ani DiFranco, as he addressed the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in London.
“If we do not get you ready now ... inequality is going to grow,” he added.
The United Nations has set a goal of 2030 for ending forced labor and modern slavery worldwide, estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global business, with more than 40 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world.
Zolli, whose company has more than 100 satellites orbiting the planet, called for the creation of a modern slavery observatory where AI is used to analyze satellite images, find and predict the locations of slavery hotspots.
On Wednesday, Doreen Boyd, a professor at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the world’s first large-scale research platform on slavery, told the conference about a third of all slavery worldwide could be detected from space.
“We cannot see the slaves undertaking the work that they have to do ... but we can detect structures, infrastructure, activity and contextual information that surrounds where slavery may well be happening,” she told the conference.
Partnering with Planet Labs, the Rights Lab’s Slavery from Space project was able to identify about 55,000 brick kilns - sites infamous for using slaves - across South Asia, she said.
Non-government organizations could then use the information to better allocate resources, she added.
The project is one of a growing number piloting the use of modern technology to tackle trafficking.
Blockchain’s digital ledger technology for example is being tested to protect workers and track supply chains.
Last month, computer giant IBM, financial services company Western Union and European police launched a project to share financial data in a bid to predict human trafficking.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Michael Taylor. 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