Code 8.7: Slavery From Space

30 March 2019
Research Innovation

Hannah Darnton  | Programme Manager in Ethics, Technology and Human Rights, BSR

As technology becomes cheaper and increasingly more accessible—from cell phones, to drones, to miniature satellites—it is changing the nature of who can use it and how it can be applied to address new and existing social issues.

The Slavery from Space hothouse focused specifically on the novel uses of technology such as satellite imagery, drone footage and earth observation and mapping to identify human trafficking, while simultaneously considering how the application and use of such technology effects the social and political dynamics of the world in which we live.

As Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick aptly stated during the discussion, increased access to tech has led to a democratization of the services technology provides, including surveillance. By democratizing surveillance, technology has allowed the wider population, including the disenfranchised and non-elite, to play a role in how surveillance can be used, and to push the boundaries of application to address pervasive social issues.

This session highlighted these positive applications—also detailed in this Science article—which included connecting the dots between indicators of human trafficking and the physical sites of exploitation. It also articulated key issues to keep front of mind as we continue to expand the remit of technology as a solution.

From left to right: Andrew Zolli (Planet Labs), Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick (University of San Diego), Kevin Bales (Rights Lab), Doreen Boyd (Rights Lab).

There is an inherent tension between technology and politics. Technology, particularly the new and disruptive technologies discussed over the course of Code 8.7, provides new perspectives and insights into the world around us. Drones, for example, can see and record things we were unable to see before, uncover information, and thereby have the potential to serve as accountability mechanisms, holding groups responsible for their actions, or, at times, their inaction. Simultaneously, the presence of these new technologies changes our behaviour. A crowd, for example, acts differently when it knows it is being observed or recorded, shifting its actions as a reaction to a drone collecting footage overhead; while political actors, such as embassies, have taken on new measures to protect themselves from the threat of surveillance overhead, instituting new forms of protection and privacy to account for the changing landscape of technology.

Tech alone can’t solve our problems. It cannot replace political will or civil society action; a human component or on the ground understanding of the issues is still needed to maximize impact. As Doreen Boyd from Rights Lab stated, AI is being used in earth observation already, but humans are needed to decide where to focus the lens.

Collecting data is the easy part. However, data is only as valuable as the ability of the groups on the ground to use it. The actionability of data and the decision to act requires infrastructure and resources beyond the technology itself.

Technology has to be selectively applied. Power and politics matter, and we need to remain cautious of putting it in the right hands. Just because there is data on an issue does not mean that it will or should be utilized; we need to put technology in the hands of leaders willing to use these tools to lead widespread social change.

New insights may not confirm our beliefs. We need to keep in mind that these new insights—gleaned from satellites, drones or other forms of new technology—may not support what we currently believe. As Andrew Zolli from Planet Labs mentioned, in the human rights sector, and particularly in the fight again human trafficking, we are working with information deficits, and much of the time we are working off of hunches. The application and use of new technologies will allow us to increase our levels of information and provide evidence on the issues we are facing, both confirmed and disconfirming.

This hothouse made it clear that slavery is a 21st century problem, and 21st century tools are needed to fight it. Satellite technology is already being used in novel ways to address modern slavery and human trafficking, but the is still a great deal of unlocked potential. Code 8.7 made it clear that stakeholders are excited to find ways to unlock this potential and expand who can make use of this technology.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Code 8.7 Conference Report. Read all the contributions here. Download the full PDF report here.

Hannah Darnton is the Programme Manager in Ethics, Technology and Human Rights at BSR.

This article has been prepared by Hannah Darnton as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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