This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Heather (not her real name) was working consensually at an escort service as a sex worker when she realized that a human trafficking ring was trying to trap her. “She was completely panicked,” says Sherrie Caltagirone, to whom Heather reached out.
Caltagirone leads the Global Emancipation Network, a young, nonprofit organization that utilizes data to identify both traffickers and victims. Their weapon is Minerva, named for the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, which puts the big data to work.
Studies about the number of people being trafficked today yield different results, ranging from 20 to 45 million, giving the estimates a margin of error greater than 100%. The trafficking problem is huge but so is the lack of good data. The Global Emancipation Network is out to fix that.
“Human traffickers are reliant on current technology to increase their revenue. But the same technology can be used against them,” Caltagirone says, explaining the fundamental premise of her work. (Be sure to watch my full interview with Caltagirone in the video player at the top of this article.)
Using Minerva, Caltagirone was able to identify the individuals involved in the attempt to trap Heather in this trafficking ring. Leveraging the organization’s relationships, “we were able to rescue her from that situation and she was not trafficked.”
The Global Emancipation Network has received help from Microsoft Philanthropies, which provides technological support that accelerates the effort. GEN has recruited Microsoft volunteers and utilized Microsoft Philanthropies’ grants and discounts over the past two years since GEN was founded. This is part of the Tech for Social Impact Team at Microsoft.
“The upstream impact GEN has had in the human trafficking sector is remarkable given their size,” says Justin Spelhaug, general manager for the Microsoft program. “It is inspiring to see how a relatively small organization saw an opportunity to put their talents to work and went all in, leaning on partners like Microsoft Philanthropies to provide the tools to fulfill their vision. GEN is just scratching the surface on the immense impact they can make in ending the human trafficking industry.”
Caltagirone says the long-running efforts to thwart trafficking needed an upgrade. “The strategies that we have been employing are completely ineffective,” she says.
She points to the recent FBI takeover and shuttering of Backpage as an example. The site was used for selling sex, including trafficking victims. Shutting it down was hailed as a victory. Caltagirone says we’re just playing “whack-a-mole.” The perpetrators, who were not arrested, will simply move their ilicit wares to other websites.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, NCMEC, was created in 1984 by John and Revé Walsh. It is designated by Congress to serve as the national clearinghouse for information about missing and exploited children.
Staca Shehan, the executive director of the case analysis division of the NCMEC, notes that Microsoft introduced Caltagirone and GEN to the NCMEC in 2016. “Sherrie has traveled to NCMEC to provide training to our staff in-person and collect feedback based on our use of the tool,” Shehan says.
Shehan explains how the NCMEC uses Minerva. “Minerva helps NCMEC find information in large, hard to search data sets. Specifically, Minerva has helped NCMEC locate additional phone numbers in online advertisements and further analyze who that phone might be registered to, which can lead to possible current location for the child. Time is critical in missing child cases and Minerva is one of the tools that support NCMEC’s efforts to generate leads quickly to support the child’s recovery.
Fighting human trafficking is different than address many other social problems. In other situations, even bad actors may have no malice, no intent to cause a problem. Rather, problems either arise through no human action, as in the spread of malaria or polio, or as byproducts of other activities, as in our near-universal use of fossil fuels with its impact on the climate. In contrast, with human trafficking, there are bad guys acting with malice.
This contrast leads to difficult results for those at risk of trafficking. In Heather’s case, trafficking was averted, but her life was devastated. The would-be traffickers told her full-time employer about her nontraditional side hustle and she lost her job. They told her landlord and she lost her apartment. Ending human trafficking and its related suffering will not be easy.
Minerva has now identified 989 individual victims and perpetrators and is tracking 22,000 more. The work of the Global Emancipation Network provides everyone in the anti-trafficking effort with a new tool that both protects those at risk and blocks, hinders and punishes the traffickers. There’s a new sheriff in town and she’s slinging big data.