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Google Turns to Big Data to Unmask Human Traffickers


Refugees from Myanmar wait for registration in Thailand after being rescued from a human-trafficking gang along the Malaysian border

Photograph by Thoranit Pirunla-Ong/EPA

Refugees from Myanmar wait for registration in Thailand after being rescued from a human-trafficking gang along the Malaysian border

Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative of all criminal enterprises. According to recent research (PDF) from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 20.9 million people have been pushed into forced labor, creating a booming $32 billion illicit trade stretching from Laos to Los Angeles.

Despite all their manpower, law enforcement, anti-trafficking task forces, and policymakers know surprisingly little about the illegal cross-border flow of humans forced into the sex trade or into slave labor or cut open to have their organs extracted. Google (GOOG) believes Big Data can turn the tables on these crime gangs.

The search giant announced on April 9 that it will award a $3 million grant, part of its Global Impact Award program run through its Google Giving philanthropic arm, to a trio of anti-trafficking organizations, Polaris Project, Liberty Asia, and La Strada International. Google will also lend its tech expertise through its Google Ideas task force, teaming with Palantir Technologies and Salesforce.com (CRM) to build the first data-sharing platform to identify global patterns on how the human-trafficking trade operates and how to better protect the victims.

“Nine months ago, starting with the Google Ideas Summit, we set out to map, expose, and disrupt the workings of illicit networks,” says Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas. “This includes organized crime, narco-trafficking, organ harvesting. Every single one of these networks involved human trafficking.”

The alliance announced on Tuesday means the three anti-trafficking networks, which operate emergency hotlines in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, will share data on where the emergency phone calls are originating, the ages of the victims, their home countries, and the types of criminal activities they have been forced into. With the help of Salesforce.com, Palantir, and Google, the agencies will be able to crunch data like this in real time to detect crime trends that they can then share with police and policymakers to help protect victims.

Polaris has already been analyzing data on emergency calls in recent months and noticed a series of crime trends that it hadn’t spotted earlier. “Sometimes when you are in the middle of taking calls, you just can’t see these things,” says Polaris Chief Executive Officer Bradley Myles, adding, by way of example: “Wednesdays are the days we get more calls coming into our help lines from survivors under the control of a violent pimp. We’re trying to understand why that may be.”

Crunching data like this, and being able to match it with similar data across borders from other trafficking emergency hotlines, could build a clearer, more timely picture of where the human-trafficking-related crime is originating and how law enforcement and victims rights groups can intervene.

The Google announcement came on the same day the White House called for more data-sharing among federal agencies to help disrupt these criminal human-trafficking networks.

“Working with the [anti-trafficking] partners, we can take data from their help lines and map it so that we can identify who is vulnerable, the patterns that emerge, and anticipate the movement, offering prevention measures, not just rescue,” says Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google Giving.

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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  • GOOG
    (Google Inc)
    • $584.8 USD
    • -2.06
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