Can apps pre­vent hu­man traf­fick­ing?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Tech­nol­ogy, the say­ing goes, is a dou­ble-edged sword. But when it comes to hu­man traf­fick­ing, that has yet to be proven. There is ev­i­dence that mo­bile phones, so­cial me­dia, in­stant mes­sag­ing, and other mod­ern forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have given traf­fick­ers new tools for re­cruit­ment, co­er­cion, and ex­ploita­tion. But can tech­nol­ogy – and apps in par­tic­u­lar – help pre­vent vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple from be­ing lured and help vic­tims?

Apps have pen­e­trated nearly ev­ery area of mod­ern life, from the consumption of news and en­ter­tain­ment to the man­age­ment of health and fi­nances. The Euro­pean Union’s Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Di­rec­tive en­cour­ages the use of the In­ter­net for “re­search and ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes…aimed at rais­ing aware­ness and re­duc­ing the risk of peo­ple, es­pe­cially chil­dren, be­com­ing vic­tims of traf­fick­ing in hu­man beings.” Apps seem like a nat­u­ral tool for rais­ing aware­ness, pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion on des­ti­na­tion coun­tries, and offering op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­port hu­man traf­fick­ing.

In­deed, de­vel­op­ers have al­ready cre­ated apps that can do just that. For ex­am­ple, Travel Safely, an ap­pli­ca­tion de­vel­oped by the Ro­ma­nian Min­istry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs, was de­signed to pro­vide Ro­ma­nian na­tion­als with in­for­ma­tion while they are abroad. Users can learn about con­di­tions in the coun­try to which they are trav­el­ing, in­clud­ing whether any travel alerts are in place. They can also use the app to alert the near­est Ro­ma­nian con­sular mis­sion in case of emer­gency, as well as quickly find out what to do in case of accident, ill­ness, or the loss of doc­u­ments. By open­ing a clear chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the app can help a traf­ficked per­son reach safety quickly.

An­other ex­am­ple is Ban Hu­man Traf­fick­ing, which uses a game to ed­u­cate young peo­ple about traf­fick­ing and in­structs them on how to recog­nise po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. It also gives them an op­por­tu­nity to re­port hu­man traf­fick­ing when they en­counter it. Hu­man traf­fick­ers ben­e­fit from their vic­tims’ lack of knowl­edge about work­ing con­di­tions in other coun­tries and their ig­no­rance of their rights while abroad. Ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts that are ac­ces­si­ble and in­ter­est­ing have the po­ten­tial to un­der­mine that ad­van­tage.

Other apps, such as CrimePush, al­low vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing to up­load ev­i­dence: pho­tos, au­dio files, or text, as well as re­port crimes as they hap­pen.

And yet, no mat­ter how well de­signed and po­ten­tially help­ful th­ese apps might be, it is im­por­tant to ask whether they are ef­fec­tive in prac­tice. Given the com­plex­i­ties of traf­fick­ing, can apps like th­ese truly pro­vide the as­sis­tance their users may need?

For starters, there is the ques­tion of whether the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by anti-traf­fick­ing apps reaches those who need it most. To be sure, po­ten­tial vic­tims of traf­fick­ing are as likely as any­body to have ac­cess to the In­ter­net or a smart­phone. But will those who are at risk of ex­ploita­tion be aware of the ex­is­tence of an app that can pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about where they can seek help? Would some­one head­ing abroad for work use an app that would alert them to signs that they may be about to be traf­ficked?

Then there is the fact that there is al­ready a lot of in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net and else­where about the risks of hu­man traf­fick­ing. And yet, ev­ery day, peo­ple make the po­ten­tially risky choice of mov­ing from their home to ac­cept a job un­der ques­tion­able con­di­tions. How likely is it that an app that does noth­ing to im­prove the ma­te­rial con­di­tions in which peo­ple live (which is what drives them to take risks) will en­cour­age po­ten­tial vic­tims to con­sider their op­tions more care­fully? With­out ad­dress­ing th­ese con­di­tions, can aware­ness-rais­ing tech­nolo­gies make a dif­fer­ence?

Fi­nally, apps can be un­der­mined by the co­er­cion that of­ten ac­com­pa­nies hu­man traf­fick­ing. To be sure, one ad­van­tage of apps is that they can be quickly re­moved from a phone. But vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing are of­ten too fear­ful of reper­cus­sions to use the av­enues of com­mu­ni­ca­tion avail­able to them to re­port the crimes be­ing com­mit­ted against them.

But per­haps apps can over­come such ob­sta­cles. The im­pact of new tech­nolo­gies on clan­des­tine crime can rarely be pre­dicted, and more re­search is needed to de­ter­mine whether apps can be con­sid­ered ef­fec­tive tools in the fight against hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Given their rel­a­tive cost-ef­fec­tive­ness and the wide dif­fu­sion of mo­bile tech­nolo­gies, apps do pro­vide a promis­ing av­enue for ex­plo­ration. Bet­ter mar­ket­ing strate­gies and im­proved pri­vacy pro­tec­tion, for ex­am­ple, might just help apps reach their in­tended tar­gets, en­abling them to avoid or even break free from the co­er­cive con­trol of hu­man traf­fick­ers.

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