Around the world, almost 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. Sometimes numbers can sound abstract, so let’s put it into a bit of context – that’s almost the same size as the population of Australia. No wonder, then, that the United Nations describes human trafficking as a “crime that shames us all”. But there are ways of fighting this heinous crime. Data. In fact, some industries have already been leading the way.

In a new Forum report, we look at how sectors such as finance and technology are using big data to find patterns in human trafficking. Doing so has allowed them and anti-human trafficking groups to get a head start in the fight against those who trade in human lives.

A digital footprint

As Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance points out: “All sorts of electronic and digital fingerprints are left when a crime is committed or a business enterprise is being run. Financial institutions are in a unique position to spot red flags in banking activity and report them to law enforcement.”

In 2010, JP Morgan did exactly that. Barry Koch, formerly a managing director at the bank and now the chief compliance officer of Western Union, recalls that JP Morgan’s Financial Intelligence Unit first approached human trafficking through a data-driven lens. “With public domain information and law enforcement partnerships, we realized that we could design financial models that would produce correlations in the data that were red flags for trafficking.”

The team partnered with the United States Department of Homeland Security to create typologies to identify financial transactions and account attributes that were worth investigating. Certain geographic locations and types of businesses – nail salons, non-unionized stores, restaurants – were viewed as a higher risk for trafficking activity, based on publicly sourced information. Coupled with the types of transactions – credit card charges at certain hours of the night, for example – JP Morgan’s Financial Intelligence Unit began to see distinct patterns emerging.

The distinct nature of the patterns is important to note. Drug trafficking and organized crime can raise suspicion because large amounts of money flow through a single account. But often, trafficking does not generate money in quantities large enough to send a warning to FinCEN, the financial crime enforcement unit of the US Treasury.

Therefore, while FinCEN maintains that certain red flags can signal possible human trafficking activity, the JP Morgan case suggests multiple variables need to be examined to establish a stronger indication of the crime. Rather than merely filing a suspicious activity report, financial institutions might more effectively pinpoint human trafficking activities if they examine several variables, including recurrent business transactions outside official hours of operation, cross-border transfer of funds inconsistent with the stated business purpose of the account holder, as well as a high number of individual accounts opened and closed simultaneously.

Technology’s contradictory roles

Technology has the potential to enable or disrupt human trafficking. In one respect, the free flow of information through the web and mobile technology has created new opportunities for traffickers to exploit victims. Women and girls especially are often lured through online adverts for models, mail-order brides, nannies, waitresses and domestic servants. Customers can now more easily solicit victims at the click of a button.

But some companies have been using technology to help fight human trafficking. In 2012, Microsoft awarded $185,000 in research grants to better understand how technology is used in sexual trafficking and develop new interventions. That same year, they brought together the researchers they funded at an annual conference, to promote networking and improve research in the area. The company has made clear that it sees technological disruption as an important aspect of combating human trafficking: by raising the cost, risk and difficulty of doing business, trafficking becomes a less lucrative and appealing trade.

Other actors that have invested in disruptive and innovative platforms include Google. It donates part of its philanthropic efforts to initiatives such as the Slavery Footprint Calculator and the Polaris Project, which operates a national U.S. trafficking hotline. Palantir Technologies, a computer software and services company, has worked with the United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to search and analyse information relating to missing and exploited children and sex offenders.

The lessons from the financial and technology communities show how innovative solutions from the business world can achieve success in combating human trafficking, especially when law enforcement, academia and business can share their respective insights.

The World Economic Forum report, Hedging Risk by Combating Human Trafficking, is available here

Authors: Christina Bain, Director, Initiative on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, Babson Social Innovation Lab, Babson College; Louise Shelley, Professor, School of Public Policy, George Mason University

Image: Suspected victims of human trafficking pray at a government shelter in Takua Pa district of Phang Nga October 17, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha