The advancement of technology is a beautiful thing: we have smart phones, smart homes, social media, nano medicine, electronic health records and more. We can send photos of our family and friends almost anywhere in the world, have groceries and electronics sent straight to our door, and the advancements that are coming out of the STEM field are incredible.
But the best thing about technology happens when it’s used as a force for good.
Sex trafficking is a subject few people want to discuss, and that’s understandable: it can feel like a crime that can never happen to you or someone you love. But if it does, you’re going to want to know that someone cares enough to do something about it.
Over 21 million people are currently trapped in modern-day slavery. Of those 21 million, 4.5 million are sex trafficking victims.
Which is what mobile app designers are doing. These people are putting together all of their knowledge and passion into building apps for the common good. This includes sex trafficking, and as you’ll see, the apps come in all shapes and sizes, but all have one goal in mind: to identify and rescue sex trafficking victims and get them to safety and freedom.
Sex trafficking: who’s vulnerable?
Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as:
“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”
According to a report published in May 2012 by the International Labor Organisation, over 21 million people are currently trapped in modern-day slavery. Of those 21 million, 4.5 million are sex trafficking victims.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a global report on trafficking that states, unequivocally, the following:
“No country is immune from trafficking in persons.” UNDC 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, page 5.
The report goes on to state that over 500 different trafficking flows, which are the routes that traffickers use to move imprisoned people both domestically and internationally, were detected between 2012 and 2014. There has also been a rise in the number of men who are trafficked, both for labor and sex, in the last ten years, and that people from all age groups and demographics are forced into sex trafficking, although a high amount of those trafficked for sex continue to be aged 12-18.
What all the data available tells us is that sex trafficking can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in Western countries like the UK and the US. Victims come from all backgrounds, genders, religious affiliations, and more. There is no set standard for one group that is more vulnerable than another, only an understanding that some regions, such as Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, traffic victims internationally while other countries, such as Western countries, traffic victims domestically.
There is no fixed profile for sex trafficking victims, and they come from all backgrounds, genders and religious affiliations.
With the knowledge that there is no profile for a vulnerable person that is at risk of being trafficked, questions arise about how best to deal with sex trafficking, a crime that involves a number of young children. In recent years, however, the question has been answered by more than a few passionate designers and organisations that are tackling the problem.
Using civic technology to help rescue sex trafficking victims
The use of civic technology for the good of humanity isn’t new, but for sex trafficking victims, it can mean the difference between being exploited or regaining freedom. By combining civic tech along with education in the form of apps, developers are helping to create databases built by users to inform governments and police departments worldwide about sex trafficking; these apps also provide awareness training for the public, ensuring that if you see something that looks like human trafficking you know what to do in order to help the person being trafficked.
Here are just a few of the apps that are currently working to help sex trafficking victims.
Redlight is an app available on iTunes that focuses on using crowdsourced information to help sex trafficking victims. It’s supported by the Seattle Kiwanis Memorial Fund, which helps disadvantaged youths.
The main focus of the app is to recognize and report signs of human trafficking through the app; the organisation then gives the information to the proper authorities. The app also allows people to pinpoint on a map where they saw the victim, allowing concerned citizens to report suspicious activity anonymously.
This is an app that is available both on Android and iPhone phones. It was created for healthcare professionals who come into contact with patients who may be sex trafficking victims.
The app works by walking the healthcare provider through a questionnaire; this is divided into two groups: one for children and one for adults. Depending on the answer total (anything above an 8), the app could surmise that there is a good chance the patient is being trafficked. The professional then should call the local authorities or a sex trafficking helpline to help the victim.
OPCompass, or Operation Compass, is a mobile app from a non-profit organisation of the same name that is located in Fort Worth, Texas. It is available on Google Play and on iPhone. It works similarly to Redlight in that it reports sex trafficking suspicions by its users to various local and federal law enforcement; however, this app works on a global scale, meaning that it’s useful for travellers who may be visiting foreign countries.
OPCompass is currently looking to raise money to update their mobile app. You can donate on their website.
All incidents are reported anonymously and gives you the chance to either record the incident or pinpoint on a map where the incident took place; alternatively, you can also leave your contact information so that law enforcement can call you if they need information. This allows the correct law enforcement to get the information in order for them to assist and save sex trafficking victims.
This is an international mobile app that is available on the Android or iPhone app stores and allows users to anonymously report cases of sex trafficking at three different levels. These include reports on suspected victims, suspected traffickers, and suspicious activity, such as a hotel that may host sex trafficking rings.
This app was developed by Orphan Secure, a non-profit organisation that has been actively helping international law enforcement and other NGOs in identifying, rescuing, and assisting victims of human trafficking; they specialise in fighting child sex trafficking. They have been doing this work since 2010 and are highly-regarded by the international community.
Perhaps one of the best known apps is TraffickCam, an app that was released on iPhone, Android, and Google Play when it was developed in 2015. It is a civic technology app designed to help find sex trafficking victims.
The app works like this: a user uploads up to four pictures of the hotel rooms they use when they travel. The photos go into a large database that can then be used when law enforcement see online adverts for sex trafficking victims. Because hotel rooms are generally used for online sex adverts, having a database of hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms — complete with names of the hotels, room numbers, and addresses — provides law enforcement with leads that can cut off days, or even weeks, to the safe rescue of sex trafficking victims.
Do apps help or hurt victims?
Apps like the ones mentioned above have had a mixed response from volunteers and organisations that work to end sex trafficking. As mentioned in this piece on Care2, it comes down to one important factor: the laws concerning sex work in a given country.
Not all countries are understanding of sex work. In most parts of the United States, prostitution is illegal and sex workers, whether they were trafficked or work willingly, are routinely convicted of solicitation and given jail time. In fact, many sex trafficked victims don’t see a way out of their situation because when they’re arrested, the police often don’t ask whether they’ve been trafficked or if they need help, leading them to continue the cycle of sex work after they’re released.
Many sex trafficked victims do not see a way out of their situation as they fear arrest should they come forward.
Another question that is being raised, most notably by Project Syndicate, is this: who are the apps for? Many of the apps, including the ones mentioned in this piece, rely on open data delivered by users in order to create a database to help track down victims or the organisations that are keeping them prisoner. Other apps, such as Ban Human Trafficking, focus on educating young people about sex trafficking and other forms of trafficking.
TraffickCam hosts over 1.5 million photos from hotel rooms across America, and scores an 85% success rate in identifying rooms used for sex trafficking.
Whether or not the apps work is up for debate depending on the country you live in; however, it is critical to note that TraffickCam hosts over 1.5 million photos from over 145,000 hotels across America and counting, and it has the potential to save lives; in St. Louis, the app has a 85% success rate in identifying hotels that have been used for sex trafficking. The app also has partnered with police departments nationwide in America, ensuring that the database its users have created is easy to access.
The will is there, and now, with the help of some incredible designers and passionate people, change is beginning to happen.
How you can help
To stop sex trafficking, more is needed than just a mobile app download; however, it is a step in the right direction. By offering law enforcement units the chance to look through open data to match victims with places they’ve visited, you’re giving those who are trafficked a chance at freedom.
But there are other things that you, a member of the public, can do. You can go through General Awareness training, which in America is delivered by the Department of Homeland Security; it’s about 20 minutes long and will teach you how to recognize trafficking situations and victims. In the UK, the training is provided by the Salvation Army and can be found here.
Should you ever be in a position where you believe that someone might be a trafficking victim, don’t approach them or try to get them help on your own; there are numbers you can call, which are listed below for your convenience. As stated above, approaching a victim or contacting the police may result in punishment for the victim and rarely leads to the search, indictment, and conviction of traffickers.
Approaching a suspected trafficking victim may result in punishment for the victim and rarely leads to the conviction of traffickers. Contact authorities instead.
You can also help sex trafficking victims is to become an advocate for them; this includes educating yourself on the difference between a sex worker and a trafficked victim as well as lobbying for better rights for sex workers, which happened in the UK last year. This is important because in many parts of the world, including the U.S., prostitution is illegal and therefore victims of sex trafficking are often jailed for committing a crime they were forced into.
Sex trafficking is not a new crime and everyone, regardless of age, race or class, can become a victim. It has serious health and psychological ramifications for the victims involved and yet it continues to spread worldwide. Designers who are developing mobile apps are trying to help, but they can only do so with your help.
If you have the space on your phone, consider downloading one of these apps today – who knows? You might just end up saving a life.
Sex Trafficking Hotline Numbers:
Modern Slavery Helpline (UK) – 08000 121 700
National Human Trafficking Resource Center (US) – 1 (888) 373-7888