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Wednesday, 25 October 2017 23:03

Using big data in the fight against slavery


What can one person do to combat the evils of human trafficking? Can we, as technology professionals, use our skills to effect good in the world? The answer is yes, says the Global Emancipation Network.

This may be the most important story I've written. In The Wired CIO, I speak of the wonders of technology for business excellence, and the need for today's IT leader to transform business. Yet, not all is so well in the world. Human trafficking exists for forced labour and sexual purposes. Trafficking is a big business model and enslaves and holds captive real, live human beings. It can only be described as evil.

The Global Emancipation Network, or GEN, is a non-profit organisation committed to the fight against traffickers, leveraging big data to unite international partners and law enforcement in this fight. It's no hyperbole to speak of trafficking as "big business"; it brings in roughly US$150 billion annually, according to the International Labour Organisation. Around 21 million women, children and men are trafficked annually, but fewer than 50,000 of these victims are identified and rescued.

Human traffickers in developed countries such as the United States and Australia are keeping up with technology to increase their revenue and stay one step ahead of law enforcement. They use the marvels of the Internet to find and groom victims, to transport them, and to advertise their services. Yet, this same technology can be used against them.

Here's where GEN comes in, making use of big data tools and analytics from Splunk via its charitable arm Splunk4Good and its Splunk Pledge which last year committed $US100 million over 10 years for research, education and non-profits. Splunk Pledge has in its first year already distributed millions of dollars in licenses and trained thousands in the use and administration of Splunk.

GEN was founded by Sherrie Caltagirone, who told iTWire the threat intelligence and security community is a small one. Caltagirone knew Monzy Merza, Splunk's Head of Security Research, who was working with Splunk Pledge's Corey Marshall to identify the right partner for Splunk's non-profit commitment. "Not just a partner, but the right partner," Caltagirone says, "someone doing something tangible."

Thus, GEN signed up with Splunk Pledge for education credits, expertise and licensing. "We hit the ground running," Caltagirone says. "We brainstormed, flew out to Seattle and put the plan together."

GEN describes itself as the global clearing house for trafficking intelligence, and its mission as facilitating communication and technology-sharing initiatives between anti-trafficking organisations.

Specifically, GEN collects data from the open Web, the deep and dark Webs, and anywhere it thinks trafficking is happening in all its many forms. The organisation looks to find patterns in the data - perhaps the same phone number appearing at the same time in different places, or maybe where a dark web screen name is used on public Internet social sites. All of this effort works towards GEN's mission – to identify and rescue every victim, to identify and stop every trafficker.

Much of this data may be seen as disparate or useless in isolation, but by correlating all this information together through big data analytics GEN is able to identify human trafficking activity and rings and to work with law enforcement in real time to act fast in tracking them down.

As well as its software, Splunk brings its smarts and its people. Merza has applied his learnings from cybersecurity practices — whether using machine data to detect ransomware or other anomalous activities — to get crafty to identify these traffickers and make this data usable to non-data scientists, like police and detectives. Data analytics are used to find correlations in advertisements and phone number origins. GEN’s Splunk system is connected to the law enforcers’ text message systems so they can be alerted in real time.

"The other thing that's really important to GEN," Caltagirone says, "is people can use their skills for good. People have their day job but then can use their skills for human impact. Not just with trafficking, but to other non-profits.

"People in the tech sector with cyber-threat backgrounds or web developers and coders can help us at any time. We have tonnes of projects. I love watching the light bulb click when people can apply the same skills they use during the day to a different problem. Really, it's the same methodology to hunt traffickers as it is to hunt hackers."

"We believe everyone has the responsibility and the ability to end human trafficking."

Caltagirone's background has been in legislation, drafting anti-trafficking laws, and sought to identify metrics to measure impact. It struck her there was no easy way to measure success. These ideas percolated with her and she realised sharing data made the most sense, leading to the creation of GEN.

It's no easy task. Countries around the globe have a wide range of attitudes towards trafficking. Some will do anything to tackle the problem while others are closed. Additionally, the European Union mandates any personally identified European information must be hosted in that region.

Despite obstacles and compliance overheads, GEN remains undeterred in its mission. "Sharing data helps find the victims and find the traffickers. The more I share this, the more the walls come down," Caltagirone says.

"The number of victims ranges from 20 million to 46 million," she says. "There's no hard data to back any figure up, and there is no repeatable methodology. Every single report that comes out identifies the magnitude of the report, but can't say with authority if there are more men or more women, or more labour or sex trafficking."

In fact, in this arena, the only number which can be taken as credible is the 9,000 convictions recorded each year.

Historically, data sharing problems and technology limitations have hindered collaboration and precision in reporting, so Caltagirone sought to launch GEN akin to a technology startup, seeking to measure success from the beginning.

"Using these methods coupled with Splunk we have brought about world change already," Caltagirone says. "We just completed an investigation that identified 167 users in a small area. This is now in the hands of law enforcement."

In this domain, a "user" is someone who is engaged in trafficking activities. "One example is an escort review forum, a place where people buying sex can review providers. Each user has an account. Our goal is to find the traffickers, seeking attribution, names, addresses and other information, enriching it with public records. We can find the same user handle in the open web," she says.

Trafficking and exploitation of people is not confined to remote, far-flung third-world countries. "Australia has a trafficking problem," Caltagirone told iTWire. "It is a transit and destination country, and sex tourism takes place from Australian nationals to South East Asia."

"Trafficking is going on under law enforcement eyes. Corruption is a big issue we face from the ground up."

GEN carefully vets those to whom it gives platform access. "We spend a lot of time in conversation with law-enforcement. We have four different levels of access – the investigator's portal is the most secure. People who share data can choose who they share with and which fields to share. We vet individuals and agencies while information owners can control and share the data with who they wish. The insider threat is real."

You can reach GEN via the Web, Twitter, or Facebook. GEN gratefully receives donations of funds and time.

Splunk4Good has also reached US Veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project.

“Splunk is helping Wounded Warrior Project place veterans on the path to cutting-edge careers by equipping them with tangible and marketable skillsets,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington, chief executive, WWP.  “We are excited to partner with Splunk through our Warriors to Work initiative because careers requiring analytics and cyber security skills are in high demand, and there are thousands of available opportunities available globally. Partners like Splunk help us to better connect, serve and empower wounded warriors every day.”

The Splunk Pledge was announced at Splunk .conf2016, providing free Splunk Enterprise licenses, e-learning and support to any non-profit organisation in the world.

“I am deeply proud of Splunk Pledge as we work with the community around us to drive awareness and delivery of education and access to information. Among many successes, Splunk Pledge has already helped nonprofits use analytics to combat human trafficking, optimize solar power in transportation and accelerate humanitarian and disaster response,” said Doug Merritt, president and chief executive, Splunk.

“Data analytics through Splunk enables businesses to grow and succeed, and now Splunk is enabling individuals, diverse communities, nonprofits and educational institutions around the world to similarly succeed. Splunk, together with our partners, is using machine data to change the world.”


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.