Around the world, the number of individuals being trafficked illegally is at a 15 year high. What can be done to address this problem?
Before answering that question more directly, one important point needs to be discussed: To address international trafficking, corruption must also be targeted. After all, human trafficking simply cannot occur without corruption. As the OECD notes, organized trafficking requires systemic levels of corruption. The business of recruiting, transporting and exploiting people through the use of force and/or deception is a highly lucrative one. The human trafficking trade, according to recent estimates, is a $150 billion global industry. There are many parallels between corruption, which involves dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, and human trafficking. As I have written before, although corruption comes in many forms, its most common manifestations involve acts of bribery, extortion, patronage, and embezzlement. Money is a prime motivator in both corruption and human trafficking, and the former plays an integral role in allowing the latter to occur.
Researchers at EUROsocial, an organization dedicated to improving levels of social cohesion in Europe and abroad, have documented the ways in which corrupt officials allow traffickers to enter countries and exploit innocent victims. By establishing rings of protection, corrupt officials enable traffickers to operate with high levels of impunity. By accepting bribes, for example, officers and inspectors are more likely to turn a ‘blind eye’ to falsified documents. Can a new technology help address corruption and subsequently help fight the scourge of human trafficking?
Using blockchain to address corruption
A novel solution to addressing the issue of corruption involves blockchain technology. However, before discussing the ways in which this technology can be used effectively, it is important to define, in the clearest way possible, what blockchain is, exactly. Essentially, it’s best to think of the technology as a digital ledger. For the first time in history, blockchain offers us a system of recording information, largely impervious to changes or hacking. Once the information is recorded, it’s virtually impossible to alter.
A digital ledger of transactions, which is what blockchain technology offers, allows for the duplication and distribution of information across an entire network of computer systems. Every one of these computers is connected to the blockchain system. Each time a transaction occurs, a new ‘block’ is added to the ‘chain’. Unlike traditional computing systems, largely centralized in nature, the blockchain is decentralized. This means that the information is recorded on not just one computer, which makes it vulnerable to editing or deletion, but across a whole host of computer networks. Furthermore, the information is stored through an immutable, cryptographic signature, otherwise known as a hash.
Now, with a clear definition of what blockchain technology entails, how can it be used to address corruption?
One of the biggest issues associated with corruption is the mismanagement of funds. This mismanagement occurs because of a lack of transparency, but with advancements in technology, greater degrees of accountability and transparency are very much possible. If a government decides to construct a new railway line, for example, every single detail can be tracked, from the amount of dollars being spent on supplies, to the amount of hours each employee has been involved on the project. More importantly, through the use of blockchain technology, each financial transaction can be monitored and recorded on the digital ledger. There is a clear history of transactions. Moreover, there is a clear history of who was involved in each transaction. Additionally, the technology ensures that only authorized individuals are allowed to access the funds and spend them accordingly.
How can blockchain technology be used to address police corruption?
The reluctance of police officers to report colleagues for unethical or criminal behavior is referred to, informally, as the ‘blue code of silence’. What can be done to prevent members of police forces in countries like China and Venezuela from engaging in behavior that’s often criminal in nature?
Last year, in the United States, an anonymous organization called Police Accountability Now (PAN) launched the PAN protocol, a platform built using the blockchain network. The reason for building the network was simple: when it comes to filing reports regarding police misconduct, people often fear for their safety. Furthermore, they fear that their identities will be exposed. By allowing members of the public, as well as police officers, safety and anonymity, PAN offers a solution. Now, because of blockchain, whistleblowers can file complaints without the fear of having their identities exposed.
Internationally, the need to address police corruption is a serious one. When it comes to human trafficking, as the researcher Sofia Jonsson has documented, corrupt officers lower “the costs for traffickers in origin countries by facilitating the recruitment of victims, and protecting traffickers from detection and prosecution”. Of course, corrupt police officers are just one piece of the equation, albeit a hugely significant one. Blockchain technology, if implemented correctly, could certainly play a role in creating a more transparent system of law enforcement, where justice really does stand a chance of prevailing.
Using blockchain technology to address human trafficking
Money Laundering and human trafficking are synonymous. In 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the equivalent of 5% of global GDP was laundered globally. In many ways, money laundering is a prerequisite for running a lucrative trafficking system, as criminals must find a way to transform their illicit funds into legitimate currency. Obviously, judging by the exorbitant amounts laundered last year, the current efforts to combat money laundering are, at best, tepid in nature.
Again, blockchain offers a viable solution. The technology, after all, is based on the principle of transparency. When applied to the world of finance, blockchain ensures that every transaction carried out can be traced to its original source. With a trail of digital bread crumbs, identifying bad actors becomes a lot easier.
In 2017, Reuters published a piece discussing the ways in which fake passports were being used to traffic young children in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. In an effort to combat the proliferation of fake documents, companies like VeriDoc Global have developed a system that ‘leverages blockchain technology’, allowing authorities ‘to verify’ the authenticity of the passport, beyond any reasonable doubt.
How so? The VeriDoc system involves implanting a Secured QR code within a passport. Additionally, with a unique digital hash inside the QR code, a quick scan lets officials access information that exists on the blockchain network. This ensures both verification and validation of the passport.
However, with the exponential progress of technology, moving past the need for paper-based documentation (like passports) seems to be a far better solution. Thankfully, we are entering a post-pandemic age, where the possibility of cross-border travel without presenting physical documents is becoming a reality. Some companies are already busy leveraging blockchain and biometric technology to allow us to enter a post-paper world very soon.
Although a passport can be fraudulently presented, a retina or fingerprint certainly cannot. In an effort to target illegal cross-border activities, including human trafficking, a move towards biometric verification, via the blockchain system, seems like the next logical step.
Surely, if we harbor desires of conquering other planets like Mars, we should first use our immense technological prowess to help the citizens here, on planet Earth, many of whom are being exploited and abused on a daily basis. Significant problems call for significant responses, and blockchain technology offers humanity hope.
John Mac Ghlionn is an essayist and cryptocurrency researcher, currently pursuing a doctorate in psychosocial studies. His research focuses on the ways in which technological progress shapes humanity.