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Can Big Data Help Fight Human Trafficking?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked every year. They're smuggled across borders, forced into sex work, or used as unpaid labor. In all, there are nearly twice as many modern day slaves as there were at the height of the transatlantic slave trade 350 years ago.

While human trafficking is generally a low-tech industry, "big data" from some of the world's biggest financial institutions is being mined in order to identify and combat the crime -- part of what's been called a data war against human rights abuses.

A Coalition of Data Nerds, Bankers, and Cops

Human trafficking is an illegal industry (banned by federal law, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, to name a few) but it's also a large one. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are nearly 21 million people held in "forced labor and servitude" globally, generating $32 billion worldwide.

At some point, that money enters the global financial system. Financial institutions, law enforcement, and nonprofits can analyze data connected to human trafficking to attempt to identify suspicious transactions linked to human trafficking. This summer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation brought together Europol, the UK's National Crime Agency, and Europe's biggest financial institutions to look at how financial data can be used "to identify the behaviors of potential people traffickers, to understand the dynamics of this global challenge and to ensure a greater understanding of how financial data might uncover the criminals." (Disclosure: Thomson Reuters is FindLaw's parent company.)

It's a Data War

The idea is that "big data" from the financial system can be used to spot potential criminal activity. Big data is the unorganized, unstructured data that can be mined and analyzed for novel insights. It's big because it's low on information density and huge in volume.

That information has been used as part of the "data war" against human rights violations. Financial data can be mined for signs of trafficking that can then be used in prosecutions. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, red flags that might be picked up in financial data include "regular transfer of funds from employee accounts back to the employer's account, cross-border transfer of funds inconsistent with the stated business purpose of the client and recurrent business transactions taking place at odd hours and for suspiciously large amounts of money."

The European initiative follows earlier efforts in the United States. In 2013, the Manhattan District Attorney's office released a white paper on how financial institutions can identify human trafficking. That lead to more banks reporting suspicious activity and more prosecutions for trafficking crimes.

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