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REUTERS — Chasing shadows: can technology save the slaves it snared? A WEBSITE ON TECHNOLOGY AND ITS ROLE IN HUMAN TRAFFICKING

REUTERS — Chasing shadows: can technology save the slaves it snared? A WEBSITE ON TECHNOLOGY AND ITS ROLE IN HUMAN TRAFFICKING
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TRAPPED BY TECHNOLOGY

For Fil­ip­ina teenag­er Ruby, a Face­book mes­sage offer­ing a job in a cyber cafe across the coun­try seemed too good to be true.

It was.

Days lat­er, the 16-year-old orphan was dragged in front of a web­cam by her new employ­ers and forced to per­form sex acts for clients — becom­ing anoth­er cap­tive in the grow­ing glob­al slave trade to be lured, trapped and abused through technology.

“It was like a bomb explod­ed … I had been total­ly fooled,” Ruby, now 21, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion at the back of an emp­ty church in Tagay­tay city in the Philippines.

“I felt degrad­ed and dis­gust­ed — I blamed myself,” she said. “I was forced to do things you could not imag­ine a 16-year-old hav­ing to endure.”

Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy — be it mun­dane mes­sag­ing apps or com­plex cryp­tocur­ren­cies — is fuelling the mod­ern-day slave trade by enabling traf­fick­ers to ensnare more vic­tims, expand their illic­it empires, and out­fox law enforce­ment, experts say.

With a click, tap or a swipe — it’s all at their fingertips.

Now experts won­der if the same high-tech toolk­it can be used against the traf­fick­ers to res­cue vic­tims and stop slavery.

“Traf­fick­ers can obscure what they do, alter their tac­tics and change their codes,” said Wade Shen, pro­gramme man­ag­er at the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense’s research agency (DARPA).

“But we are good at keep­ing up with them despite these tricks,” he added. “This is a cat-and-mouse kind-of-game.”

Entic­ing peo­ple with jobs on Face­book, sell­ing vic­tims for sex on mar­ket­place web­sites, track­ing slaves via web­cam and their phones: tech under­pins an indus­try esti­mat­ed to con­trol 40 mil­lion peo­ple and gen­er­ate annu­al prof­its of $150 billion.

From fac­to­ries and fish­eries to nail bars and migrant camps, more peo­ple are believed to be in slav­ery now than ever before.

The aver­age mod­ern slave is bought for just $90 — against a price tag of $40,000 about 200 years ago — researchers say.

“Tech­nol­o­gy has low­ered the bar of entry to the crim­i­nal world, which has had an expan­sive effect on mod­ern slav­ery,” said Rob Wain­wright, a British ex-diplo­mat, who ran Europe’s polic­ing agency Europol for nine years until this year.

Ris­ing inter­net use — 4 bil­lion peo­ple were online last year up from 2.5 bil­lion in 2012 — means many more poten­tial vic­tims, as well as a widen­ing world­wide pool of cus­tomers to be tapped.

The glob­al spread of cheap, fast inter­net and surg­ing smart­phone own­er­ship has tak­en slav­ery into a new age.

This high-tech leap leaves police and pros­e­cu­tors chas­ing shad­ows in a vir­tu­al world as they strive to meet a Unit­ed Nations goal to end forced labour and mod­ern slav­ery by 2030.

“Tech­nol­o­gy is tak­ing slav­ery into a dark­er cor­ner of the world where law enforce­ment tech­niques and capa­bil­i­ties are not as strong as they are offline,” added Wain­wright, now a senior part­ner at accoun­tan­cy firm Deloit­te’s cyber secu­ri­ty practice.

With mod­ern slav­ery now regard­ed as a major glob­al threat, experts are ask­ing if dig­i­tal tools — from blockchain to satel­lites — can help turn the tide as law enforce­ment, civ­il soci­ety, banks, busi­ness­es, and techies take on the traffickers.

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