Tracing a web of destruction: Can big data fight human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a fluid network of crime that enslaves millions around the world. The traditional response has been fragmented across countries, states, and cities, and each case often resolved in isolation. Polaris Project and other non-profits are exploring the power of shared data and analytics to identify patterns and help integrate efforts into a global response.


That is the latest estimate on how many people are enslaved around the world today.1 Many are victims of forced sexual exploitation, and many others are trapped in forced labor that varies from domestic work to manufacturing. They come from every nation and are hidden in every country, sometimes in their home countries or sometimes smuggled across borders. Together, they represent a global industry of worth $150B in illegal cash.2


Profits of human trafficking across sectors, and profitability of forced labor across sectors2

Fighting human traffickinga is extremely difficult, for a variety of reasons. One major reason is that it is an ever-present and fluid network; traffickers can be anywhere and are often in motion, both within a single country and internationally. This makes activity difficult to track, particularly when traffickers shift to new cities or cross borders. On top of that, the response to this fluid web is fragmented by geography; there are hundreds of organizations trying to respond to human trafficking within their sphere of influence. Unfortunately, without coordinated response we are often outmatched by traffickers that can easily move on to new geographies.

However, the use of analytics and big data has provided an opportunity to better understand these networks and integrate resources to combat them. Google,, and Palantir have provided funding and expertise to develop a database and analytics platform that performs two major functions:

(1) Gathers and synthesizes trafficking data and identifies patterns

(2) Enables a localized, coordinated response3

In the United States, this platform provides the foundation for the work of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), an initiative managed by the non-profit Polaris Project. NHRTC operates a national hotline, equivalent to “911” for human trafficking. Between December 2007-2015, the hotline received more than 122,000 calls in addition to thousands of others of emails and web submissions.4

Prior to the development of this platform, the NHTRC stored information from each of these calls in independent files. In a sense, each case felt like a new one; the organization was not able to fully leverage its experience across the country in each region to understand patterns and expedite a response for a single case.5

Now, data and analytics has transformed the way the NHTRC operates and responds to trafficking. When the center receives tips and pleas for assistance, these data points are added to the existing database. As the database has grown, the analytics platform 2015_us_heatmaphas identified patterns, from networks that cross state lines to tracing five cases to a single fake organization recruiting “employees” online.The goal is not simply to understand and respond to a single case in isolation, but to develop a systematic understanding and therefore a systematic response to fight, disrupt, and prevent the network of trafficking activity.

Not only does the platform recognize patterns, but it also enables rapid response that combines all resources within the area. In emergency scenarios, where the difference between responding in 8 minutes versus 10 minutes can mean the difference between success and failure, every second saved is critical. When a caller contacts the NHTRC, their location can be immediately pinpointed, and the platform automatically maps out local resources in reference to that location, including everything from critical emergency response to social services for recovery.6

Powered by data and analytics, the NHTRC’s hotline is an important step to tackling human trafficking on a national level, but trafficking is an international problem that crosses borders. To fight an international network of crime, we need an international network of shared data and resources. With that goal in mind, Polaris Project has initiated partnerships with other organizations (starting with La Strada and Liberty Asia) to form the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The objective of this network is to “develop a more coordinated global response for victims of this transnational crime…[to] create a data-driven approach that identifies human trafficking trends and informs eradication, prevention, and victim protection strategies.”7

Note that this video is from 2013, and does not reflect the latest data from the NHTRC or the ILO.

Sharing and analyzing data across countries is an enormous step forward in understanding, fighting, and ultimately preventing this web of cruelty. However, there is significant work to be done. This network of shared data, analytics, and resources must continue to grow, and must work with enforcement (e.g., local police, national agencies such as the FBI, etc.) to shift toward more preventative action. Furthermore, we need greater awareness of human trafficking at a global level, and need stronger common policy and enforcement that tightens the global net for traffickers.

Finally, while policy, enforcement, and data analytics have a place, these tools are only effective if individuals are vigilant and report suspicious activity. Those tips form the database that drives the fight against human trafficking – but more importantly, they can mean the difference between hope and despair for a single victim. We cannot lose sight of these individuals in the face of a global problem.

1 down; 20,999,999 to go.


Word count: 799


For more information on human trafficking:



[a] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as anything fulfilling three criteria:

The Act: Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons

The Means: Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim

The Purpose: For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.

From: “Human Trafficking”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.



* “Human Trafficking”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed 11/17/2016.

[1] ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and methodology. International Labour Office, 2012. Accessed 11/17/2016.—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf

[2] Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. International Labour Office, 2014. Accessed 11/18/2016.–en/index.htm

[3] Michael Grothaus, “How Google is Fighting Sex Trafficking with Big Data”, Fast Company, May 14, 2013. Accessed 11/18/2016.

[4] “Hotline Statistics”, National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 2015. Accessed 11/17/2016.

[5] Interview with Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project. Palantir. January 2014. Accessed 11/17/2016.

[6] “Hotline FAQs”, National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Accessed 11/17/2016.

[7] “Polaris Project Launches Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network”, Polaris Project, April 9, 2013. Accessed 11/17/2016.






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Student comments on Tracing a web of destruction: Can big data fight human trafficking?

  1. The work that Palantir is doing with the Polaris Project is nothing short of remarkable, in aggregating so much data from call-in hotlines and finding patterns in the data to see the trends. What I struggle with understanding is the execution. On Polaris’s website it mentions a three-step plan of action. The first is to respond to single calls, which is very important, but a small step that requires a partnership with local law enforcement from each area where a call may be placed. Second is a preventative step through education and the third is to “disrupt the business of human trafficking through targeted campaigns”.[1] While there is a sensitivity in the route they are taking to combat this, I am curious what legal arm they are using and to which entities the data is flowing. Are they working with domestic agencies such as the FBI, or internationally focused ones to move beyond the boarders of the United States? How are other countries understanding this use of technology to spy on their own citizens? While it would seem natural that law enforcement agencies would be natural partners, there are always privacy concerns that an independent business will view differently than a public entity which will have wide ranging legal ramifications. With outdated laws that have not kept up with the pace of technology, specifically with encryption and cloud-based technology, even with the best data [2], will there be a way to make a long term difference in this fight beyond a few flashy headlines and responding to specific hotline calls for individuals, leaving the vast majority still enslaved? Not that they should not continue, only that the international legal and enforcement framework must be in place to support meaningful action so that it doesn’t stay just patterns within data.

    [1] “Our Model,” Polaris Project,, accessed 11/20/2016.
    [2] “Law Enforcement and Data Privacy; A Forward Looking Model,” Yale Law Journal 125:2,, accessed 11/20/2016.

  2. Thank you for such a powerful post. I didn’t know much about the Polaris Project but in reading your research it’s an incredible use of big data and analytics to detect patterns in human trafficking in order to decrease its existence and better respond to it as it happens. I had a similar thought to the one in the comment above as I was reading; what legal arms does the Polaris Project and its supporters plug into and how do they operate in tandem? This strikes me as an example where an independent nonprofit or firm can, and should, influence policy changes so that this work is aided by governmental resources rather than continuing to go it alone. I also wonder how this manifests internationally with governments or databases cooperating with one another?

  3. Yes – thank you for such an interesting article. I have never heard about the work that Polaris Project was doing and I had never thought specifically of the ways data and analytics can help fight against human trafficking. The responses provide interesting questions as it relates to the governmental enforcement around the organization and how it impacts international and domestic law. I wonder, as big data improves and expands, how will governments react to such improvements and help implement change. Will they look to Polaris Project or what will be their next step?

  4. Thank you for writing about this topic which is needs more coverage. Approaching this from an empirical standpoint, I wonder what the data is on countries that are the source of trafficking vs. the countries where the trafficked individuals end up (looking at both demand and supply)? I’m also surprised that Developed Economics / EU, which I presume includes the US, has the second highest profits of forced labor. As first glance, I’d assume the regions with highly developed legal and law enforcement infrastructure would be best positioned to battle human trafficking. However, from the data, that doesn’t seem to be the case. If we look at sex trafficking for example, I wonder about the difference in prevalence in places where prostitution is legalized (e.g., Amsterdam) vs. where it is not (e.g., US). Does legalization enable better regulation and therefore protection? It stands to reason, however, that there will always be a black market for those who demand it.

    1. Hi SL436,

      Thanks for your comment! I think many of us from the West are surprised to see some of those high numbers for Developed Economies (which does, as you rightfully noted, include the US). For Developed Economies, I believe the absolute numbers are smaller than other regions, but the profits are higher – likely due to a higher proportion of exploitative sex trafficking.

      To your point above on legalization – that is one train of thought! I have been looking into what the effects of legalization are, and unfortunately the net effects are negative. On average, legalization tends to increase demand and remove the risk for traffickers, and trafficking inflows actually increase (for one study on this subject, see “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?”, published in World Development Vol. 41, in 2013).


  5. Thank you for this post – such an eye-opening article on an incredibly important subject. I had never seriously considered the impact of data analytics on human trafficking, but after reading your post it’s incredibly evident how impactful it is to collect, record and analyze this information to create a comprehensive and proactive response. Like the above comments, I too am curious how this information operates across borders and agencies to create a unified and continuous response from law enforcement. The statistic you mention above, that a two minute difference can impact the outcome of an intervention, is staggering – how does this manifest more specifically? Is this in reference to scenarios where the traffickers and victims are actively moving and/or attempting to cross borders?

    I wish the implications of this data collection and targeting were more broadly proliferated. In the age of the smartphone, it seems that average citizens could play a more active role in reporting [and being trained to recognize] suspicious scenarios (rather than relying on those close to the trafficking industry like truck drivers). I’ve seen educational advertisements once or twice, but I wish these organizations would leverage social media more aggressively to spread the word.

  6. Thanks for a very powerful article about an impactful initiative. However great the objective may be, I have read that the Polaris Project has often been criticized, notably by public health advocates. Indeed, regarding prostitution especially, critics point out that the initiative fails to distinguish between consenting adults and actual victims of coercion. Critics state that the fact that Polaris advocates law enforcement solutions leads to harming sex workers or arresting them – even though there are generally the victims of prostitution. What is your view on that?

    1. Hi Maya,

      I didn’t know about that criticism – thanks for letting me know! I’ve looked it up and read about it, and based on my limited understanding of what is going on, I believe that Polaris Project does not default to involving law enforcement – the victim has to specify their request of law enforcement. However, the complaints I have read are more about the perception of the sex industry rather than actual arrests – that Polaris Project is focusing on the criminal side of it and “victimizing” those involved, some of whom do not consider themselves victims. That said, I am not an expert in Polaris Project and may be reading the situation incorrectly.

      I do think that law enforcement needs to do a better job of distinguishing between victims and others, though in areas where prostitution is illegal I have to say that even if someone is “consenting” they are technically breaking the law. I have talked to many who have argued for legalizing the sex industry in such areas as a solution to the problem, but studies show this actually increases trafficking of non-consenting individuals (see “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?”, published in World Development Vol. 41, in 2013). It is a troubling challenge, and I admit that I don’t have a good answer for it.

      More broadly, however, the sex industry only accounts for ~20% (4.5M out of 21M according to the ILO) of all trafficked persons (though a disproportionate amount of revenue). There are millions of others outside the sex industry that are being trafficked and worked in manufacturing, domestic work, construction, etc. and who need more attention than they are currently given.

      Thanks again for your comment! It’s good to know what dialogue is going on about these issues.

  7. This is such an incredible project- thank you for sharing it! As someone who has spent some time mapping out the sex trafficking process in India, I think this is a highly ignored and poorly funded global problem. My work also led me to the development of the first sex trafficking hotline in India. Some of the challenges we encountered in running a hotline for such a delicate issue are as follows:

    -Having a hotline for trafficking, though a great idea in theory, is often challenging in execution because:
    -Most trafficking cases start out as kidnapping of underage girls, most victims (at least in the developing world) know their traffickers, which means at first they have no idea that they are being trafficked and do not seek help and people around them do not suspect any wrongdoing
    – Traffickers usually take the victims across the country to regions that they are completely unfamiliar with and in some cases, do not even know the local language of, which makes it very hard for the victim to seek help
    – Worst of all, the victim is ‘broken in’ (raped) several times from the point where she is picked up until she reaches the final destination, which kills any hope to use a hotline by herself
    -As mentioned in one of the comments above, offering help to adult victims gets tricky because of the idea of consent
    -There is poor awareness of a ‘sex trafficking helplines’ among victims, so they often end up calling 911 or equivalent helplines, which are not trained to handle these calls and do not respond rapidly enough- and sometimes the girl never gets to call back
    -Even though hotlines help identify trends, as you rightfully mentioned, unless the police gets on board, it is very difficult to break these networks. In fact, in several places these networks are run by the mafia and the police is often complicit in them.

    As you mentioned, getting all of the stakeholders together, consolidating disparate hotlines, speedy responses, cracking down on patterns, and educating people on the signs of trafficking (because it is so hard to tell) are key starting points for a digital solution.

  8. Very poignant post – thank you for writing and and sharing. It is unbelievable there are so many individuals involved in human trafficking around the world, and heart-breaking to imagine the experience of the victims. It sounds like big data will be able to play a major role in improving our ability to respond to this crisis. Assuming this will lead to an increase in identified victims and a better understanding of the networks of traffickers, I wonder if the rest of the response system is equipped to handle the increased volume (i.e. will the bottleneck shift from a restriction of information on the locations and identities of victims to the response capacity?). Regardless, having more and better information will allow for a better framing of the problem to increase awareness, and hopefully thereafter an increase in funding and resources to combat it.

  9. Interesting and powerful post – I am curious what other forms of data could be brought to bear in conjunction with the national hotline data that might make the big data analysis even more powerful. For example, I would guess there are marketplaces or message boards on the dark web that can be scraped, and, using natural language processing, provide additional data that can be helpful for law enforcement. As another example, I read about a service recently where hotel visitors can upload pictures of their hotel rooms to a database–traffickers often upload pictures of their victims as a form of advertisement, and this service could help locate and rescue victims by matching the advertisements to known hotels in the database in order to determine where the victims are located. Innovative digital solutions like these should increasingly be able to solve the trafficking problem in the future.

  10. Thank you for the fascinating article. This case is particularly interesting to me as digital is both an opportunity to support the resolution of the human trafficking problem, as well as a cause of the problem itself. As noted, a causal factor in driving human trafficking is the market for sexual exploitation, which one can assume is in part driven by the increasing access to the internet and pornography across the global population. The article describes how digital is being used to target an outcome of this: human trafficking. However, I would argue that a digital response must also be designed to address the cause: the availability of and demand of online adult material.

  11. Thank you ART for a really well-written and insightful post on a very important topic. As you point out, human trafficking is incredibly difficult to track but it is encouraging to think about the ways in which technology and big data can start to improve tracking effectiveness and prosecution rates. Here is a Forbes article written on Human Trafficking Awareness Day earlier this year that highlights seven technological advances that are aiding the fight against human trafficking – the NHTRC’s fantastic work that you described is mentioned in there, as are a few others including a tool called ‘Spotlight’ which was introduced in 2014 by the Thorn: Digital Defenders Taskforce (founded by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher). Spotlight is available to law enforcement agencies across the US and is designed to aggregate data from online commercial sex advertisements. Law enforcement agencies using Spotlight have reported a 43% reduction in their investigation time. But as you point out – trafficking is a global challenge so the next step will be expanding domestic tech initiatives to relevant agencies across borders, to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of global anti-trafficking efforts.

  12. This is a grave topic of global importance and impact, and I thank you for writing about it. Not only is it thought provoking, but also educative about the work that is being done in helping people and providing rescue to millions suffering because of this despicable practice. What the Polaris Project is doing is worthy of the highest praise and commendable. Considering the scope of this criminal activity, and how human traffickers use country hopping to escape scrutiny and capture, this Project should be unified under a singular international charter, encompassing all associated public and law-enforcement agencies across the globe, with a single help-line number. Not only will this broaden the scope of data analytics instantly, it will also help in capturing and curtailing the vast network of these criminals and stop their activities eventually. I understand that an undertaking of such a magnitude would require a collaborative effort globally as well as monetary and human resources, but it should be tackled along the same lines as other Global challenges being faced. The framework is ready, only the deployment is necessary. The sooner the better, for the sake of all affected victims.

  13. Very informative article on an important topic. It’s fascinating to see how using big data and analytics and has transpired into a socially beneficial cause. It seems that Polaris Project is finding a way to crowd source the information gathering aspect that proves to be so challenging in formulating an effective response. To your point, battling such a fluid, broad based, coordinated effort requires a similarly broad based and coordinated response. Given the prevalence of this issue particularly in developing countries, I wonder if using technology would be more effective than a grassroots, people oriented approach. Or maybe it’s important causes like this that will encourage communities to migrate toward a more technological lifestyle, given the invaluable benefits it could have on raising awareness of and preventing such widespread crime.

  14. Thank you for a great post on one of the most important issues we currently face. The lack of coordination between the organizations fighting trafficking, while perhaps unsurprising, is frustrating because it eliminates any benefit of scale. As you pointed out, hopefully the digitization of these key findings across organizations will serve as the catalyst that allows these well-intended organizations to leverage one another more effectively. I am inspired when I see examples of new technologies helping to combat the tragedies that are occurring in the world. Thanks for the taking on this issue.

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