Financial AI Is the Missing Key to Ending Human Trafficking

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AI systems could substantially strengthen the fight against human trafficking (GETTY IMAGES)

By Caleb Danziger

Technology has opened up a world of possibility, for good and for bad. Some enable criminals to operate on a level previously unseen, but the solution to stopping them often also lies in tech. At today’s rapid pace of development, catching the bad guys is usually a matter of having the most advanced tools.

Some of the most pressing criminal concerns have moved to the digital sphere. As a result, cyber justice can take the form of a technological arms race. Clever implementation of technology may have allowed criminals to avoid capture in the first place, but as security tech improves, it may prove to be their downfall.

Human trafficking is one crime that has proved historically challenging to address. Those guilty of this heinous activity have repeatedly slipped the grasp of law enforcement, but thanks to new tools like artificial intelligence (AI), that may be changing.

A Growing Global Concern

Also called modern slavery, human trafficking is a widespread and grave issue. An estimated 40.3 million people are victims of the practice, roughly a quarter of whom are children. While most of it may happen without people realizing it, it takes place in every corner of the globe, even in the United States.

Unfortunately, human trafficking has been able to grow because of technological advances. One of the leading reasons behind this growth is modern financial technology. Digital forms of payment have enabled traffickers to launder illegal funds with greater ease and security, making them harder to track through their money.

Modern slavery has gotten to be such a massive industry that it brought in an estimated $150 billion in 2018. You might think revenue of that size would be easy to track, but thanks to the variety of digital finance options, it’s proven nearly impossible. Under-the-radar finances aren’t the only way technology has helped these criminals evade capture, either.

Difficulty in Helping Trafficking Victims

One of the largest obstacles to helping trafficking victims is identifying and then finding them. Traffickers are careful and discreet in their operations, but a significant factor is simply the modern digital environment. The online world is so enormous that criminals can easily hide in it.

Creator of anti-trafficking app Traffic Jam, Emily Kennedy stated that with traditional tracking methods, “massive amounts of data online actually made it harder to locate victims.” It may seem that a larger data pool would make tracking is easier, but it proved to be too much information to sort through.

Emily Kennedy, Traffic Jam creator

Finding relevant information in the vast oceans of online data can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Sorting through all of it could take substantial amounts of time — which officials could use doing more practical work. Every minute spent looking through this data is another minute human trafficking victims are still at risk.

How AI Is Fighting Human Trafficking

Thankfully, an answer has emerged. The surplus of data that once hid human traffickers is now what could lead to their identification and capture, thanks to AI. An older system may not be able to make sense of all this information, but it’s an asset to AI.

Machine learning systems can analyze massive quantities of information in record time. As these systems grow closer to strong AI, programs that can think for themselves, and they become all the more useful. Advanced AI systems can train themselves to be better at identifying specific trends and commonalities.

In her experience using AI to help trafficking victims, Kennedy said she found “computer visions can identify the same pattern in many different photos.” Using this technology, she and her colleagues were able to help law enforcement find victims that traffickers had advertised in the same hotel room.

This same computer vision tech allows AI to recognize faces, even if they’ve changed over time. Kennedy and law enforcement officials found they could use her program Face Search to find victims based on old photos. While human officers couldn’t recognize victims after aging and changes to their hair and makeup, the AI program could.

Financial AI Technology

Just as financial technology made it easier for traffickers to get away, AI helps out them. Machine learning programs can find connections between seemingly unrelated accounts and transactions to identify money laundering. The more cases these systems identify, the better they’ll become at recognizing them.

Finding suspicious behavior between scattered accounts can be time-consuming or near-impossible for traditional algorithms, and even more so for humans. An AI devoted to the process can spot red flags faster and more accurately. With more data, they could improve even further.

Organizations like the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority have recognized the potential for financial AI in fighting crime. Consequently, there has been a recent push toward unified action. If banks and legal institutions share their data, these account-tracking AI systems could substantially strengthen the fight against human trafficking.