Satellites Reveal Modern Slavery

Mar 11, 2019

Credit NASA Satellite Snapshot

Charges against Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft for soliciting a prostitute have focused public attention on the problem of sex trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are nearly five million people in forced sexual exploitation around the globe at any given time. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to modern slavery.

The same group estimates that forty million people are held in forced marriages and forced labor – doing everything from domestic work to mining and fishing.

Now, researchers are coming up with novel ways to find them.

Doreen Boyd is an Associate Professor and Reader in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. She leads the data program at the University’s Rights Lab. They’ve been using satellite imagery to uncover possible cases of modern day slavery.

Her group is able to identify sites associated with slavery from satellite imagery. Brick kilns are one of those sites. She found that there are typically up to 80 people working at brick kilns and 80 percent of those people work as bonded laborers. Satellite imagery helps her team make that estimate.

“We found around 55,000 of them with plus or minus 5,000. That’s a lot of brick kilns and that’s a lot of people,” Boyd said.

Boyd estimates that satellites are able to gather images of one-third of the world’s 40 million cases of modern slavery. This is primarily based on seeing infrastructure. But it’s not just buildings that they are seeking.  

Slavery happens in fishing vessels as well. Boyd and her team can track how they are tied up and see if they never go to out to sea. Children are used in some of these circumstances, she says, you can see that from space and monitor it over time.

So, what’s next? What do they do with the data? Boyd says that these images need to be followed up on the ground with investigation and enforcement.  

She and her team are partnering with NGOs and governments to make that happen.