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#0947: #Slavetech

Gjest: Catharina Drejer

Author of Tankesmien Skaperkraft

Med Vert Silvija Seres

In this episode of #LØRN book club, Silvija Seres has invited the author of the book, #Slavetech – a snapshot of slavery in a digital age, Catharina Drejer. The book was published in 2018 by Frekk Forlag and is co-written with Kevin Bales. We look at the meaning of modern slavery, and the conversation highlights that if our understanding of slavery is rooted in the past we miss the terrible crimes that may be happening right in front of us. Today, many of these abuses take place in cyber-space, a shadowy digital world beyond our laws and human rights conventions. 

Full transcript

With Catharina Drejer and Silvija Seres

Velkommen til Lørn.tech -en læringsdugnad om teknologi og samfunn med Silvija Seres, og venner.

SS: Hello and welcome to Lørn book club. My name is Silvija Seres, and my guest today is Catharina Drejer, a friend, and a Ph.D. student at both High School for Leadership and Theology in Oslo and at OsloMet. Welcome, Catharina.

CD: Thank you.

SS: Catharina you are a social science person by background, if I understand correctly, and you wrote a book about slavery, #Slavetech, as you called it, and that's going to be the center of this conversation. Maybe I should have said at the start of the conversation that we're going to do this in English. We could have done it in Norwegian, your Norwegian is perfect, but the book is written in English, and it's probably opening it up for a larger audience if we have the conversation in English. Is that okay?

CD: Yes.

SS: Good. So the book was published in 2018 by Frekk Forlag, the same publishing company that does my State and Data. We are going to try to understand why did you write the book, how did you write the book, and what was the effect of the book. Does that sound okay?

CD: Yes, definitely.

SS: To begin with, would you mind saying just a few words about yourself? Who are you? Why do you care about slave tech?

CD: Yes. I'm a Dutch person, I'm from the Netherlands, and it started there. I worked for a human rights organization that got me into the topic of human trafficking and slavery. I was mostly working for the government and I saw that it was kind of led by a lot of NGOs doing really great work, but there was not much collaboration and not much innovation within the work. It's such an important topic. There are high numbers of people that are trafficked and slaved around the world, so it basically affects all of us in some way. It could be interesting to research what kind of innovation is used in that field, because the later years I heard that the word "Technology" wasn't used a lot, like: "Technology is going to change this field", "Technology is going to abolish human trafficking", "Technology this, Technology that", and I wondered what exactly was "Technology" in these contexts. So the book kind of started out in that, I wanted to discover what does technology means in the context of human rights issues like slavery and human trafficking.

SS: We have a series in Lørn called "Tech for Good" and we have tried to explore the area of technology in general related to human rights, fairness, and some of the social sustainability goals, rather than climate and nature-related. One of the topics that keep coming up is the ability to give people an ID. There might be some blockchain technology related to that, and I didn't realize before how big of a problem it is globally. If I understand correctly, there are about a billion people without proper, formal ID, so that's one area. I remember that you and I talked about this topic maybe three or four years ago, and it wasn't very clear, it's technology a bigger part of the problem that allows trafficking in these dark web channels? Or is it actually a bigger part of the solution which would allow the authorities and the NGOs to discover the illegal actions and stop them? Maybe I would like to start by asking you about what is the problem of slavery today. Somehow we think that's something that happened more than a hundred years ago and we are kind of done with that problem, but your starting point is that it's not a solved problem.

CD: That's true. So, just for being clear on the definitions, because I use "slavery" and "human trafficking" a bit intertwined, I see the word "slavery" as like an umbrella term of "human trafficking" or "forced labor", and those mean to be enslaved. So, I see human trafficking as a means to get to a point where you are enslaved as a person, meaning that there's someone that's controlling you, that has all power over you, and you're not able to leave. That's the definition of being enslaved. So, it's not that you have bad circumstances and you have to work somewhere, but you can leave. Then, you're technically not enslaved, even though you have a very bad situation.

SS: So, slavery, if I'm just trying to summarize it very briefly, is really a situation where you have no control over your circumstances, no choice, and it could apply to women in relationships, which are forced upon them. It can't apply to children or can it? I mean, let's say I'm forcing my kids to clean their rooms, I'm not doing anything illegal.

CD: No, you're not doing anything illegal, but one topic that I discuss in the book is the sexual exploitation of children. What we found is that a lot of times, this is facilitated by the parents. So, in this case, you can speak of a type of enslavement, where the child is forced to do things against their will, and that is, of course, a crime. It has to be a crime. So there is like a specific balance, where you can definitely say that the child is enslaved, even though it's the parents that do that. There is a fine line.

SS: What about forced marriages? And about child labor?

CD: Those are definitely forms of modern slavery, because the child doesn't really have a choice to leave or to stop, and they are often forced to do way more than just to work. So, it's very bad circumstances.

SS: And forced marriage?

CD: That's also one of the kinds of topics that you can place on an umbrella term of modern slavery.

SS: So, what's the legal framework to stop this? Is there a global regulation that, for example, forbids forced marriage?

CD: Yes. There is the Palermo protocol. It's a protocol that has been set in place in the year 2000, and Norway is one of the countries that has ratified it, which means that they will not allow human trafficking to take place. They have to really prevent and protect. There are some legal parameters that they have to follow up when they ratify this protocol, and this protocol has been ratified by many countries. That's the most known protocol internationally against human trafficking and slavery. You see also that the law here in Norway is based on this protocol, so it's very well known, but still, definitions are always difficult, and especially, when they are used in different countries. As you see, with the use of Technology, where the borders are often not in place, you have to work together as countries, and there you see a big problem because even if you have ratified the same protocol, it might look different in your country, in comparison to what you are obliged to do. So it's a very challenging subject and I think the digital part of it makes it even more challenging.

SS: So, how big is the problem in the world? What do we estimate today in terms of numbers?

CD: Today if we talk about modern slavery, including all those other subjects I talked about, it's estimated that there are about 40 million people in slavery today, and one in four of those people are children. So that's a lot of people, the problem is huge, but it's not that big that we can't change it.

SS: I guess different countries have different cultural and social attitudes, I'm thinking especially about some countries in recent wars. Do we have any ability to collaborate on these kinds of problems with countries that do not see this as illegal? I'm just trying to think about how do we enforce a global solution.

CD: Well, I think it has a lot to do with awareness, but, as you say, there are some cultural practices that we see as illegal, that for them is part of their culture, and it's part of how they have been doing things for a very long time. So I'm not sure if everyone would see that they would be doing something wrong. I guess it's a lot of awareness-raising and a lot of human rights work, I think, first and foremost, to make people aware that they have rights and that human rights are for everyone. So I think it starts a lot of the time within the communities, to make people aware so that they can say "okay, wait, this is not right, even though my culture says is okay". I think a lot of the time it's not necessarily governmental where it should start, but it should start within the people themselves, and within the communities, for them to realize that there's something not completely right, and they have the right to have a change.

SS: I'm thinking of a couple of talks I've heard at the Oslo Freedom Forum with the young women that have revolted against forced marriages and tried to build awareness locally with the elders in the different cities, and it seems to be the thing that is working for them. This is a very kind of human condition that we're trying to solve by being more human, so, where does technology come in? I would like you to help us understand both the good and the bad, because one of the problems that I see now with the dark web and some of the stories that you hear about child pornography happening on the other side of the world, but is financed by somebody in a rich country who is the perpetrator, how do you go about figuring out where this really comes from?

CD: I think if you look at human trafficking and slavery, the technology it's good and it's bad. It's neither but it's also not neutral. So, whoever uses it will decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing. I think in trafficking mostly, there is a lot of use of social media for grooming and contacting people. You see that also a lot in the applications we use, like WhatsApp or TikTok, or all the applications like Messenger, the really easy ones. I kind of came into writing this book thinking that all I've heard is that the criminals are way ahead of us. I was expecting to find that these people, those criminals, had blockchain networks and cryptocurrency wallets, but no, they were just using WhatsApp. That's one of the biggest revelations to me. Of course, some are smart and use technology in a very smart way, but obviously, most people are just using what is accessible. So, it is those easily accessible apps, like Skype, or FaceTime, you name it, that are used both to facilitate, but also, to recruit people to work for them. For example, a lot of recruitment finds people on Facebook or social media platforms, where people are looking for jobs, and false jobs are put out there. You have that kind of recruitment, and then, there is of course the sexual exploitation, which takes place via Skype, FaceTime, or those Livestream applications, where it's also difficult to trace the evidence because of course when you are done with the Skype the evidence is gone if it's not recorded. So there are those types of technology that are used to enforce human trafficking.

SS: So, Catharina, I know that some evidence is probably extremely hard to find, some, very few, are very good at using the dark web, but most of the evidence, as you say, is blatantly obvious and very lightly covered up, or completely uncovered in some cases. But the problem is the sheer scale of the things and the resources that the enforcement organizations actually have, or don't have, to follow up on all this.


CD: Definitely. You see that this problem is getting so big, and the amounts of evidence, if you want to say that, like pictures, websites and videos, are so big, that law enforcement has no way to adequately research a lot of the cases. I think this is a problem that's just going to get bigger and bigger. As we now are in lockdown, a lot more people are in vulnerable situations at home, and we are getting more digital, and during this time I think this problem will just increase.

SS: Is this a good opportunity for NGOs and the public sector to create maybe some platforms where volunteers can help?

CD: Well, in the book I say that there's a lot of technology used for good. Some people are putting out applications where you can, for example, trace what kind of clothing you're buying, if that's fairly made, which of course has impacted people and slaves on the other side of the world sewing clothing and having that circumstances there. There is a great use of such applications, but there are also some applications that are developed by NGOs that I would say that they have good intentions because they want to, of course, help people, and they want to collect information to have a better understanding of the problem, but what you get is that there's so much data collected and so sporadically done by people that don't know the field. It's like volunteers or people that are just interested, that are just trying to help, but what you get is a very blurred picture of reality because it's just bits and pieces, and since we are talking about victims, that are not going to be victims their whole lives, they're going to survive, move on, and hopefully, find a great life for themselves with a job, a family, or whatever they want, it's important that we take that into account when we collect data, but also when we create technologies that it will not be data, that's lingering online. I think this has been one of those big issues within a digital idea, who is going to keep that data because it's very sensitive information. Even though the solution sounds amazing, and, of course, everyone should have a digital idea, because this can change the picture of the people who have access to their own personal data, but as long as blockchain is not worldwide implemented, for example, then we still have somebody that's going to collect this data, and it will be centralized somewhere, so, what and who is going to be that? What are you going to do to secure the data?

SS: I think that this problem about data ownership and management it's a tough problem, but it's ours to solve because while the public sector is thinking that they are being very wise when they say that we have to think, we have to stop, we have to be very careful about how we do this, the big digital companies are actually solving the problem. So, while we say "let's stop and think", the others just say "well, let's just solve all that we can out of this thing", and the problem is that there is even more centralization of this kind of data in private hands, and no matter how well-intentioned those private hands are, which I believe they are super well-intentioned, it's still politically incorrect to place that kind of power and responsibility into not democratically elected authorities. It's putting powers in hands that are not elected or suited to have, not because, I mean, they are the smartest people in the world, I believe, but as long as the public sector doesn't take on responsibility for managing this problem, somebody else will because it's a big problem and needs to be solved. It's a similar problem with Health Data, we can wait and delay until we figure out all the privacy issues with Health Data, but in the meantime, people die, because we don't share the data for research, diagnostics, and so on. It's similar to what we're doing now with the vaccine and reopening of society. It's about how do you get to the goal in a safe and fast enough way, where those two things are a little bit in contrast with each other.

CD: Exactly, and I think it's a good point with them fast enough, because, as you say, we can't wait for too long for the technology to have perfected itself to be used. We kind of have to work with it and adjust, but it's so difficult because these are people that are already in a sensitive and vulnerable situation, so if anything goes wrong, they will have the least means to do anything about it. If it's like us that live in Norway, that have jobs, that are aware of our rights, if it's us that is tested on, I think we are more capable with the resources we have to maybe do something about it, but I think somebody that is not so aware of their own human rights, and doesn't really know the technology will not, and that's, of course, that balance of "how are we going to solve that?".

SS: I think it's very, very interesting. I have spoken with a couple of companies I want to mention to you, and I would like to hear more of your examples since Norway has some really interesting AI research and it was applied on visual and other kinds of Biometric User Interfaces. So, one application is a research project that is looking at the way people type and uses that to classify people. They can recognize people who are grooming by, not what they type, but how they type, and then the big dilemma is how can this data be kept safely, and who should be able to have access to this data, keeping in mind that even though they are very effective, there could be some false positives. Then, the other really interesting one was where people are using now images more and more for visual identification, but you can do more things, you can combine people's faces, and that can be used for illegal access to both services and countries, and there is a company that can deal with this kind of manipulation of images well. So, both of these are related to ID kinds of challenges. What are your favorite positive possibilities in technology?

CD: Well, I think there's a very easy one, and that's just if you look at the communities where there is a risk of people being quite vulnerable, and that is digital education. It's so simple that it's almost overlooked because I think that we're always looking for the newest technology. There was an interview with a woman from Afghanistan, you probably know her, she is doing a digital literacy project in her community helping young women to get an education, but not just sewing or something that often is done to help women out of a difficult situation, but coding and programming, using the technology side of it to make people digital citizens. I think that is quite an easy example, even though the work is not easy. It's not so high-tech, to say like that, but it can make a big difference. That's one of my favorite examples of how technology can be used to create more empowerment among people, to educate them digitally, that there is a world out there, a digital world that they can be part of.

SS: Agreed. Catharina, what's your main goal with the book? Why did you want to write this book?

CD: I wanted to write it because mostly I was interested myself in what people would put into technology because it's a buzzword, it's kind of like an NGO-word that's now used a lot to find solutions for all kinds of Human Rights issues, but especially here in human trafficking. So, it's just interesting, what does it mean? What does it mean? Because technology can be anything. Also, I think I wanted to create awareness on maybe the ethical side of when we're developing technology, for those NGOs that feel like it's an easy solution to create an app for something that's not always thought through, and how to store data, or what kind of impact it will have on the survivor later on. I think those topics were something that I really wanted to look into. Lastly, I talked to some people that survived after they had been enslaved, and I learned that they have fantastic ideas themselves on how to prevent people from getting into the same situation using technology, so, for me, it was also to create a platform for them to share their stories and to also give their wisdom and kind of what they have learned and shared with the rest of the NGOs and the people that work in a kind of anti-slavery field because they carry so much knowledge and have great solutions that are way simpler often than we could think of.

SS: What are some examples? What could be a way to avoid becoming enslaved, if there are one or two to kind of really good ideas?

CD: Well, I talked to two men that were in a situation here in Norway and they got out after they've been stuck without a passport or anything, and I interviewed them, not necessarily about their story, because it doesn't matter how they got enslaved, but more to think a bit about solutions for other people like them, that are looking for a job, better work experience, and better money to send home. So, I talked to them about solutions, and they said: "well, our people are often on these social media platforms to connect with one another, and that's where we look for jobs". If Facebook or anyone would put out a prevention video, or make us aware that this is happening, then I think a lot of people would be helped by that, which is, of course, a very easy solution in the Facebook group. Like he said: "yes, you can develop an app, but most of us don't have iPhones, so we would never be downloading any app. I did not know I was enslaved or being trafficked. I would never look up my rights online because I didn't know I was trafficked. I didn't know I was in a bad situation until we got back, and then, it was, of course, too late for googling "UDI" for looking at my working rights, and you're already in a situation where you have no choice". I thought this was a revelation, we should pay more attention to people that have suffered through this and hear what they have to say.

SS: Can I just ask you a legal question? Because most of us know so incredibly little about this, shamefully little about this, and I think the people who are in this difficult situation know the least, but if they find themselves in a position like that in one of the properly regulated countries, is it possible to simply find a policeman and say: "I am being trafficked"?

CD: Well, that's a bit of the issue here in Norway. I think that for a long time, the victims have been seen as sort of an offender themselves, so, a lot of them have not dared to go to the police because they often get sent back home, and that's also not what they want. So, it's a very difficult and delicate situation, but there are some organizations here in Norway that are going to, at least, help with providing rights and even looking into the case to see if they are being trafficked or not, and what can they do for them. So there's just an extra person with that person to make sure that their rights are being honored because they do have rights here in Norway.

SS: Their rights are to be free, but they still don't have the right to illegally immigrate to Norway.

CD: That's true.

SS: So, I guess, and this is probably where it gets very political, but basically, in a way, it should be also the social requirement that you don't willingly participate in something that encourages slavery by wanting to illegally immigrate.

CD: Yes, and that's what they now do, for example, in airports and those kinds of places, where people come to work, that's where they now raise awareness. There is a lot of work being done to kind of target those groups. I think, coming back to technology, that we can use those kinds of social media groups way more to raise awareness about what is the problem, because these two men I talked about, had a contract, and they were here legally, as far as I understood. They were misled, and that happens also. There are some people also that don't mind the exploitation because it's better than what they had at home. So, there is a lot of difficulty there in finding solutions for people that need help, and some people that don't want help, so there is that fine balance again: finding solutions for the rights groups, because there's no technology that fits all those, and also not such solutions against human rights issues that fits all groups. You have to look particularly at the issue and try to target that in a way that fits.

SS: Another question I have for you, Catharina. I guess you know the Pareto Principle, where the 20% of the effort gives you 80% of the returns, and that might apply here as well. I imagine that there are some places where there are hotbeds of exploitation, that maybe, if we found a way to deal with those somehow efficiently first, you could solve much of the problem, and I'm thinking especially where children are involved. We talked about digital education and literacy, but if you were to try to advise on a global level, what do you think we should start with?

CD: Well, I think there has to become a bigger focus on these livestream applications, and these live stream functions of recording imagery, because if you look at the survivor, if the child survives, the material will be online and it's very hard to get everything off, especially because everything is copied and distributed in all kinds of channels. It's a huge problem because you can be rescued from exploitation and slavery, but you will never be free from it because it's always out there online. The pressure for a victim or survivor is huge, so, I think we have to take that more serious, and, with more serious, I mean that we should maybe have more resources available for that particular problem because it involves young children, it happens in the home, and there is a very low standard for getting access to all of that material, you can do that from your living room if you want. I just recently published an article about that, it happens a lot with their work computer, it's the most private device people have, so, a lot of the materials download on a work computer. Employers can try to look into their company and how they regulate that, or how they deal with that, because it's a huge problem, and it infiltrates all parts of society.

SS: Catharina, whom do you hope reads the book?

CD: I do hope that politicians that are involved in developmental work would read the book, but also in work, here in Norway, that is on human trafficking and human rights because I think this technology part has to really be more enforced and the work against that child online exploitation because children are so vulnerable, and it's our responsibility to protect and to take care of them. So, I think we will have to find better ways to deal with that, and to deal with it quicker. I think if politicians create laws, or at least, discuss them if they could read this book and take that into account, I think that would be a good start.

SS: Would you say that also parents could do something more in order to protect the children from digital slavery that you talked about?

CD: Well, definitely. Of course, not all grooming leads to human trafficking, and not everything leads to slavery, but you can see slavery also as a part where you have feelings, because your information is out online forever, like a picture you shared. That's, of course, legally, not slavery, but it is a type of enslavement, it's something you can get off. So, I think for parents it's extremely important to take that into account, and for them to look at their child and ask: "how are you doing", to discuss this, ask them about it: "How do you navigate online?", ask for help also, because a lot of people are a bit hands off of, for example, Snapchat, like: "It's nothing for me". I understand it is for my kids, but I think that, as parents, we have this obligation to understand that world, because it is their world, it's the world of them right now. So, we have to engage in that, follow up and see and look also for signs, if your child is withdrawn, or if they're going to be secretive, and if their moods change and you see it's connected to their phone. There is always an opening there to ask like: "Hey, how are you doing? What are you doing? Can you show me?", and be like wanting to learn from them. I think that's a good starting point, because, of course, with sexual online exploitation, we focus a lot on the Philippines, for example, or these "hotspots", as they call them, but I think it's very underreported, and it might happen here as well, and if it's not happening here, it will in the future. So, I think we have to become very aware of what we let our children do online and follow up on them, be interested in their lives so that they also dare to come to you if they shared something that they shouldn't have shared, that they are feeling that open connection to talk about it. I think that's important.

SS: I would like to read the quote from your book, Catharina, that I like as well. You say: "For too long advocates have tried to solve problems while forgetting those who carry the solutions: those who have suffered, yet have survived". You are saying that we should, as you also have done yourself, talk more to people who have been in the situation, rather than thinking from our Ivory Towers, and asking them for what they think would be the best solutions for them.

CD: Definitely, and it's the same with children that are not necessarily exploited. I think you can also ask them: "What do you need? How can we make this a safer place for you? How can we, as a parent, protect you there? What do you mean?". I think is a good way to ask questions and to be interested, because a lot of times you'll be surprised by the answers you get.

SS: My last question, Catharina. So, you started the project five years ago, and the book came out three years ago, are you more optimistic or pessimistic at the moment?

CD: I'm always optimistic. I think a lot of people are doing a lot of great things, so I think we should focus on that, and we should try to develop those good things and not all want to do our things, but maybe add to those that are already doing good stuff. I think then, we can get far. We are learning and we are just having to keep learning.

SS: We are definitely learning! It was a pleasure talking to you again, Catharina. Thanks for a wonderful book and thank you for participating in a Lørn book club.

CD: Thank you so much.

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Title: Ph.D. candidate (applying for admission to the Ph.D. program) and university lecturer in the subject ‘modern slavery’ at the College of Management and Theology.

Education: Sociologist, MA Slavery & Liberation.

Hobbies: Cooking for friends and family, taking a walk in nature, watching documentaries like HUMAN and WOMEN.

Book name, publisher, and year: #Slavetech - a snapshot of slavery in a digital age, Frekk Forlag, 2018.

When was the book written, and why?

The book was written in 2016 and published in 2018. I would like to shed light on how digital technology affects human trafficking and slavery today. Both on the positive and negative.

What is the most important thing you want to convey with the book?

That "tech" is not a silver bullet and that even though it appears in the media as THE solution to all kinds of problems, it is not. One must use good knowledge to develop and use technology to solve human rights problems.

Why did you have to write this book, now?

In 2016, there was not much knowledge about the link between human trafficking and digital technology and how it is used for the positive and the negative (online recruitment, online exploitation, use of social media such as blackmail, etc.).

What is the central dilemma here for you?

There is a lot of hype around the different technologies and I have found that it can be a bit dangerous when you only develop an app for items. with good intentions, but have not thought about the consequences (that it should be tested on people who are already in a vulnerable situation, that they must have a life after funding is being pulled out, etc.).

What have you changed your mind about?

That all criminals are "way ahead of us" who are often communicated in relation to technology and crime (human trafficking).

Give us your 3 favorite examples from the book?

1.that parents have a great responsibility to help their kids stay safe online (interview with the mother of a girl who was recruited on social media).

  1. that the internet means that those who are sexually exploited do not just have one perpetrator, with several - all those who watch that material online - again and again.
  2. Survivors of Slavery gave me good input on how technology can be used to prevent online recruitment.

What do you want us to remember from the book, if that's a thing?

Good intentions are good, but do not go far in developing solid technology that really solves problems - we must never forget that we are dealing with real, vulnerable people when we fight human rights violations such as slavery with digital technology.

What other similar books should people read, possibly see?

General on Slavery and Trafficking: "Disposable People" by Kevin Bales (2012) - and a more academic book "From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Reframing Contemporary Slavery" by Alison Brysk and Austin Choi-Fitzpartick (2012).

Your next book project?

I am a research fellow and will research the use of Live Stream technology and sexual exploitation of children online (a form of human trafficking. This can be a book. I think that in the social field we must be better at understanding 1) digital technology, 2 ) the consequences of digital technology for those victims.



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“For too long advocates have tried to solve problems while forgetting those who carry the solutions; those who have suffered yet have survived,” - quote from the book.  

- Catharina Drejer

Recommended literature:

Disposable People” by Kevin Bales (2012) 

This is Tankesmien Skaperkraft

Catharina Drejer advises in the think tank Skaperkraft. Slavery, human trafficking, human rights, poverty, international work, and technology are central themes in her work. She has a master's degree in Slavery and Liberation from the University of Nottingham. Drejer has written the book #Slavetech - a snapshot of slavery in a digital age together with Professor Kevin Bales.