Is it time to include technology in policy and legislation addressing human trafficking?

by Julia Muraszkiewicz | Trilateral Research
Tuesday, 11 September 2018 15:15 GMT

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Technology is not an exclusive space, instead it is an extension of our fight against a human rights abuse

Over the last eighteen years there have been rich developments in the legislative and policy frameworks that underpin counter-trafficking work. Significant investment of resources and time have been dedicated in order to respond to an offence that the European Commission (EC) has described as: ‘a serious crime against persons.’

Underpinned by research and advocacy from civil society, legislation and policy moved away from a predominant focus on prosecution, which was clearly visible in the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Now we see a developing emphasis on the protection of victims and long-term prevention of human trafficking, both in the international and domestic space.

Recently two new national legislations have come into life; (i) The Modern Slavery Act 2015 in England & Wales and (ii) The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. They are the most contemporary legislations in the field of human trafficking and strive to become pioneers in the fight against the crime.

UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May said: ‘Just as it was Britain that took a historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, so Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving the freedoms and values that have defined our country for generations.’ Both legislations are indeed progressive, not only do they dedicate attention to protection and prevention they also acknowledge the importance of partnership and multi-disciplinary work, the need to exclude exploitation from national economies and promote decent work and strive to provide further protection to children. All quite innovative in the human trafficking legislation space.

However, it seems that there is still a lacuna in the current approach; there is no talk of technology, even though it is now accepted that to address human trafficking it is not enough to prosecute and protect our way out of issue, nor is it sometimes even possible to achieve successful prosecutions without the use of ICT.

This is not only true for the new domestic legislation but is also accurate for regional instruments, which fall short of a true modern response to human trafficking. There is no explicit reference to technology in Directive 2011/36/EU on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims, and whilst the EU Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings adopted in 2012, does pay attention to the Internet and social networks it does not do so from the perspective of law enforcement (just looks at awareness raising).

An accumulation of technologies now exists in relation to fighting human trafficking: web crawling, data analytics, predictive policing, use of blockchain, geographic information systems (GIS), online data basis, crowd sourcing initiatives to name just some of the examples. Nevertheless, increased technological capabilities raise new (as well as familiar) issues. Yet the law remains silent.

Is it time to claim that provisions in anti-trafficking instruments should not only address prevention, protection and prosecution, but should also take into account the modern, technology filled context in which the crime plays out and is addressed? Probably.

If only to address challenges in relation to the availability and use of technology. This includes regulation of resources and time to invest in the development of bespoke technology, addressing uncertainties around legal, privacy and data protection requirements, and encouraging the engagement with available technologies.

Legislation could also address the provision of training and development of skills on how best to use technologies. These news laws would not only set the rules but also have the power to shape attitudes and develop a social consensus. It would also allow the drafters of such laws to turn Mrs Mays words into reality.

However prior to modernisation of legislation and policy there is a need for researchers to ask: What can, and should, any new policy on the use of human trafficking look like? How to consider accountability and to establish standards to ensure all ICT and digital tools in the fight against human trafficking are correctly developed, used and audited to safeguard the integrity of criminal proceedings and citizens’ fundamental rights, including the right to privacy?

Thomas Jefferson said in 1816, ‘Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.’

The human trafficking law must keep up with the times for technology is not an exclusive space, instead it is an extension of our fight against a human rights abuse.

Julia Muraszkiewicz is a Senior Research Analyst at Trilateral Research Ltd.