Global Commons

Facial Recognition Systems: A Tool to Combat Human Trafficking?


Walk through almost any neighborhood in Manhattan and law enforcement can trace your path, tracking your movements on the 8,000-plus cameras that blanket the city. Attend an event at Madison Square Garden and building security—and advertisers—will rely on facial-recognition technology to track attendance and prevent people believed to be threats from entering the building. Fly in to JFK International Airport and biometric scans and facial recognition systems will verify your identity. If you glance down at your new iPhone, it will unlock after a quick facial scan. Opponents of this software consider it an invasion of privacy, calling up images of dystopian futures from the novel 1984 or the film Minority Report. Proponents of the systems argue that they make going to an event, flying, and even walking down the street more secure, as law enforcement agencies can rapidly compare faces against databases of people suspected of criminal activity.

Image Courtesy of Pixabay, © 2016.


Enhancing security in crowded areas certainly does seem like one area that would benefit from advances in facial recognition technology, though at the expense of some personal privacy. Another effort that could be aided is combating human trafficking. Numerous international organizations–including the International Labor Organization (ILO), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and INTERPOL, as well as smaller regional organizations like Plan India and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)–work to reduce the incidences of human trafficking and forced labor. Despite their best efforts, the number of human trafficking cases is believed to have increased in recent years. New York currently has the fourth highest number of reported cases of human trafficking in the United States. Victims, which include U.S. citizens trafficked inside the country as well as legal and undocumented immigrants, are coerced into domestic work, prostitution, working in restaurants, nail salons, panhandling, and other service positions. In the United States, an estimated 400,000 people endured forced labor conditions as of 2018. Globally this number is around 40 million, a little less than double the population of Australia.
The practices of human trafficking and forced labor are an undeniable breach of fundamental human rights: the right to life, liberty, and security of a person; the right not to be held in slavery or servitude; the right to recognition as a person before the law; and the right to freedom and movement, for example. Despite the obvious ethical issues, it is clearly a very profitable enterprise. An estimated $150 billion in profits is generated each year through human trafficking, roughly in line with the GDP of Hungary. Like all economic activities, the ebb and flow of human trafficking is driven by the supply of vulnerable and exploitable people, as well as people willing to exploit others, and the demand for low-cost goods and services.
It is difficult to eradicate human trafficking for a variety of reasons. For one, there will likely always be both demand for cheap goods and supply of people who will enable slavery. Corruption plays a big role in every step of the process, with police, courts, and governments willing to turn a blind eye in exchange for a payoff. Tackling human trafficking involves dealing with a lot of extremely complex issues like socioeconomic inequality, black market economies, and weak institutions. Facial recognition systems could help in one particular area: identifying and tracking both victims and perpetrators. As more facial recognition systems are put in place at borders and ports of entry, travelers’ faces can be compared against databases of missing persons, such as NamUs‘s and INTERPOL’s. Major sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup tend to draw higher incidents of forced labor, during the construction phase and during the games themselves. These same sporting events are increasingly adopting facial recognition systems in stadiums in order to monitor attendees and prevent crime. These systems could also be used to identify missing persons or suspected trafficking victims who may be near the stadium.
Facial recognition technology is not a panacea, of course. Images and video have to be compared against some sort of database, and at this point there are no international databases of all suspected victims or of all perpetrators suspected of being involved in human trafficking rings. Not all victims of trafficking are taken across borders or even into public spaces that might have cameras. In some places, like North Korea, forced labor is state-sponsored. Furthermore, there is the eternal security versus privacy debate: how much information about ourselves are we willing to give up, even for a worthwhile humanitarian cause like rescuing a forced labor victim or preventing a perpetrator from traveling? Still, in the fight to end such an egregious violation of human rights, it is imperative to use all tools at our disposal to help alleviate human suffering. Acting fast and leveraging these advances in technology should be a priority, especially given the already massive scale of the problem, and the grave consequences for the individuals involved.

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