Using AI to combat human trafficking

Using AI to combat human trafficking

Bill Peace, of the nonprofit STOP THE TRAFFIK, shares his strategies on disrupting human trafficking, a criminal industry that victimizes tens of millions of people worldwide.


What we did

After serving as Deputy Director of Intelligence for the U.K. Serious Organised Crime Agency — similar to the FBI in the U.S. — I found that “retiring” really wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t walk away from the fight against human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. It’s just too important. That’s why I became an advisor to STOP THE TRAFFIK, a coalition that aims to end human trafficking worldwide.

Most of the victims are women and children. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1 million people are trafficked across the borders each year, according to the U.S. State Department. Eighty percent of those victims are female, and 50 percent are children. And it’s all happening right under our noses.

This ruthless exploitation of our fellow humans drives a $150 billion-per-year criminal industry — in the same league with drug trafficking and major financial crimes. Yet systematic, organized resistance to human trafficking began only about 10 years ago as public- and private-sector leaders came to recognize the pervasiveness of it, the enormity of the profits, and the breadth and depth of misery and despair caused by modern slavery.

Human trafficking victims are forced into agricultural, domestic and industrial labor; prostitution; and other forms of exploitation from which there is little chance of escape. There are three approaches to help thwart these crimes:

  • NGOs help communities become more aware of trafficking and to support victims.
  • Law enforcement targets the traffickers.
  • Financial institutions identify and track the flow of funds related to trafficking.

Of these three approaches, helping banks follow the money is where IBM’s expertise and technology are making a major impact. The banking and finance sectors have fought money laundering for decades. Although it’s harder now for criminals to hide their money, those funds still can be intermingled with those from legitimate businesses. A critically important way to expose these activities is through better sharing of information.

To that end, IBM worked with STOP THE TRAFFIK to develop a new, IBM Cloud-hosted data hub that enables institutions such as Barclays, Europol, Liberty Global, Lloyd’s Banking Group, University College London, Western Union and others to provide its analysts with information to help combat human trafficking. Using AI and machine learning, the tool is trained to recognize and detect specific human trafficking terms and incidents. AI also enables the hub to ingest open-source data — including thousands of daily news feeds — to help analysts better identify the characteristics of human trafficking, such as recruitment and transportation.

Only authenticated partners have access to the secure data hub, to which they can upload non-personal data related to human trafficking. The tool then uses AI to aggregate and interpret the data — transforming it into information that governments, NGOs, and financial institutions can act on. By analyzing unstructured data and sharing the results, the platform improves cross-sector collaboration.

Finally, the data hub’s shared governance means that all partners own an equal stake and retain control over their data. And by effectively sharing data with everyone in the global anti-trafficking community, we are multiplying our ability to achieve our eventual goal: The end of human trafficking.

Bill Peace is head of the Traffic Analysis Hub at STOP THE TRAFFIK. The Traffic Analysis Hub was enabled by an IBM Impact Grant.