Anti-human trafficking apps were meant to save lives. They’re failing

Kelvin Lim began working to raise awareness about human trafficking in 2009. He used music and organised events at schools and universities across Malaysia, sometimes accompanied by his band. Then, one day in 2016, a member of the audience contacted him about a neighbour’s domestic worker she had seen with burns on her neck. Lim, a 50-year-old pastor and events producer, advised the woman to discreetly take a photograph of the woman’s injuries. He then sent it on to Tenaganita, a migrant rights group located in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, and they rescued her.

The incident, like other tip-offs he had received following such events, sparked an idea. Lim teamed up with Tenaganita, which has sheltered and supported migrant workers in Malaysia for three decades, to develop an app the public could use to anonymously report instances of suspected trafficking such as forced domestic work, sexual exploitation or child labour.

By April 2018, the Be My Protector app was available for download on Android and iOS. But despite Lim’s ambitions, only a few thousand people did so. Since its launch, his team has received around 400 reports. With the onset of the pandemic and recurring lockdowns, usage of the app has fallen in the last year. Around 100 cases were reported in 2020.

Accurate figures for how many people are in forced labour or prostitution in Malaysia are impossible to come by, but the Malaysian Employers’ Federation (MEF) estimates that nearly two thirds of the country’s migrant workers are undocumented and vulnerable to exploitation. “Many believe that for every legal foreign worker, there are about 1.5 illegal workers,” MEF executive director Shamsuddin Bardan said in April 2020. There are about 2.2 million documented migrant labourers in Malaysia – and the app only reaches a fraction of potential trafficking victims in the country. The government reported a 70 per cent increase in the number of potential victims identified between 2018 and 2019, according to the 2020 Trafficking In Persons report from the US State Department.

Be My Protector is one of a growing number of apps designed to combat human trafficking and support survivors of exploitation worldwide. Like others, it’s struggling to get off the ground and have an impact. An analysis of nearly 100 anti-trafficking apps by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Tech Against Trafficking initiative reveals problems such as duplication of efforts and an inefficient distribution of funds, as non-profit organisations and research teams develop tools without investing resources in building their user base, sharing expertise or prioritising survivor experience.

Hardly any of the apps directly benefit victims of trafficking, says Thi Hoang of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, who specialises in mapping anti-trafficking technology internationally. “The marketing does not reach the audience they want to reach, like the survivors of human trafficking or the vulnerable communities,” she says. “There is a lot of effort in developing tools but not getting them out to the actual people who need them.”

Of the 91 apps Hoang has mapped so far, more than half focus on Europe and North America and over 50 per cent of the tools were accessible only in English. That’s despite research suggesting that parts of Africa and Asia have by far the highest rates of human trafficking.

Few apps serve to improve conditions for those most vulnerable to exploitation, such as fishing industry employees and garment factory workers. Only a minority – such as MigApp from the International Organisation for Migration – are specifically designed to help trafficking survivors access services they need to reintegrate into society.

The measure of a tool’s success in the humanitarian sector is impact, says Phil Bennett, a technology consultant specialising in tackling human trafficking. Unless it makes people’s lives or behaviour change, it’s little more than ornamental.

The cost of creating an anti-trafficking app varies. Lim built Be My Protector for less than RM50k (£9,000) with the help of a volunteer coder in New Zealand; other tools easily accrue hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding. But a lot of app functions are duplicated, says Hoang, citing an app in Asia and another in the Balkans that both employ an identical approach to raising awareness around human trafficking. “If they had collaborated in the beginning, they wouldn’t have had to develop everything from scratch,” she says. “So that would have also saved resources.”

Few apps also factor the experiences of trafficking survivors into their development and design. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that input from survivors often makes the difference between which apps are useful “versus what will be a waste of time”, says Robert Beiser, strategic initiatives director for sex trafficking at Polaris, a non-profit organisation that combats human trafficking.

Seattle-based sex trafficking survivor Jacquelynn Loos now works for Real Escape from the Sex Trade, a nonprofit where she uses her personal experience to help develop online outreach to people at risk of exploitation. Subtle details, such as allowing users to choose their own usernames and photos – rather than automatically pulling images and details from their public profiles – make a huge difference, she says. “Survivors’ voices are invaluable to projects like these,” she says.

Many anti-trafficking apps have emerged recently because trafficking is such a buzzword at the moment, experts argue. Survivors of trafficking often describe devastating abuse, involving the use of fraud, coercion or other forms of violence to force them into exploitative working conditions. In recent years, world leaders from Donald Trump to Theresa May have politicised the cause, arguably to further anti-immigration policies, and funding for initiatives promising to combat trafficking has shot up.

In highly-connected Asian countries, there’s a particular focus on using technology to combat human trafficking. Approximately 90 per cent of Malaysia’s population have access to the internet, and in 2018, the Royal Malaysia Police revealed over 17,000 IP addresses had either uploaded or downloaded child sexual abuse materials from within the country. Reports suggest traffickers are increasingly turning to social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram to recruit migrant women and men into forced labour.

Despite the option to use Be My Protector anonymously, most reports of abuse still come in over Tenaganita’s hotline, says Aegile Fernandez, who has headed the organisation since 2010. That’s possibly because many migrant workers and trafficking victims fear, despite assurances, that the app could allow them to be identified. “Whereas if they see [or speak to] you personally, there is more trust building,” she says.

Of the 400-plus reports Be My Protector has received in three years, Tenaganita has intervened in 120 cases, almost all involving migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia. Fernandez often attempts to negotiate directly with employers to release those they’re exploiting, sharing information with law enforcement after the victims’ safety is ensured. On other occasions, she tries to convince employers to provide better working conditions. “Sometimes, it can be just one person, but sometimes we can rescue a large number of them,” she says. Approximately a third of the people she’s helped have since returned home, while others are offered counselling and support through various NGOs so they can rebuild their lives.

Despite Be My Protector’s quiet start, Lim remains hopeful about its future. Since 2018, he has raised an additional RM100,000 (£18,000) in donations, which he intends to largely use for marketing and employing more staff to verify initial reports. The team also hopes to add more languages to the eight already available, as well as a voice reporting feature. “In ten years, we want at least one million people to have our app in Malaysia,” he says. “Then we feel we are able to make perpetrators of trafficking afraid.”

Much like Be My Protector, many anti-trafficking apps are designed to identify victims of trafficking, according to Hoang’s research. Others include TraffickCam (which encourages hotel guests in the US to upload photos of their hotel rooms in case it’s previously been used by a sex trafficker) and Safe Car Wash, which UK-based religious group The Clewer Initiative launched in June 2018 with the National Crime Agency to help people check whether their car is being washed by “victims of modern slavery”.

But many experts believe crowdsourcing reports of exploitation is problematic. They also take issue with the rapidly-growing ‘rescue industry’ of non-profit organisations and law enforcement agencies that prioritise the removal of individuals from exploitation, without addressing the factors that led them there in the first place. Such an approach also makes the assumption that the person in question actually wants help.

“I don’t think people are educated on what trafficking actually looks like,” says Loos, adding that she often sees misinformation about human trafficking on Facebook and TikTok. “Even to me as a service provider, it could look like it, but I don’t have enough information to be saying that [someone is] being victimised. So it’s really hard for the general public to do that.”

The Clewer Initiative says the team behind Safer Car Wash initially had concerns about asking people to report potential exploitation, but decided the benefits outweighed the risk. “The alternative to not encouraging any reporting or identification is to turn a blind eye,” a spokesperson says. TraffickCam didn’t return a request for comment.

The reason why so much technology is reactionary rather than preventative is simple, says Erin Albright, the founder of New Frameworks, an anti-trafficking organisation in the US. Preventing human trafficking requires systemic change. “So [everyone is] always gonna be looking for the shiny new tool that’s going to be the magic wand. Everybody wants it to be this quick fix.”

Apps that offer the promise of rescuing people who have been trafficked are also appealing to potential donors, she says. “An app is a very compelling, tangible thing for a funder versus, ‘let’s solve poverty and give people rent’.”

Others believe the anti-trafficking sector would make more progress if non-profits shifted efforts away from rival victim identification apps and focused on developing tools to safely share and protect trafficking survivors’ data. “Data standards sounds like the most boring kind of technology idea you can think of,” says Bennett. “But there’s definitely a huge amount of opportunity.”

There are a lot of variables that contribute to why certain people are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, says Albright, adding that she wishes there were more focus on stopping trafficking in the first place. “And an app isn’t going to solve that.”

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