Satellites spy on human trafficking 'compounds' (photo)

a satellite view of buildings, roads and a small village
A compound in south Asia accused of hosting human trafficking, as seen in a satellite image. (Image credit: Maxar Technologies)

Satellite images are helping human rights organizations monitor human trafficking hotspots.

The International Justice Mission (IJM) says a partnership with the space technology company Maxar is allowing it to track the growth of "compounds," places where people are forced to work as online scammers in Southeast Asia. The IJM publicized this effort in a tweet that featured three years of imagery captured by Maxar Earth-observing satellites.

Border towns in Myanmar like Shwe Kokko and Lay Kay Kaw, for example, "host gambling and entertainment complexes developed by Chinese investors" accused of human rights violations, according to the Financial Post.

"People from other nations are tricked into taking jobs and then put into virtual captivity and forced to work in call centers conducting internet scams," the Post wrote in June of the accusations levied.

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The United Nations has tracked at least 225,000 human trafficking victims around the world in the past 20 years. Among the most vulnerable are women and those living in areas in conflict, according to the UN.

According to Reuters, the rise of human trafficking was the centerpiece discussion of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on May 10, during which leaders in the region pledged action on the issue.

Thousands of individuals confined in such operations have been "lured by social media posts promising well-paid jobs in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar," Reuters reported.

ASEAN's statement said that technology, though an "indispensable element" of human lives around the world, has "generated risks and consequences of technology abuse, in facilitating transnational and organized criminal activities." 

No country is immune from trafficking, but Southeast Asia is said by experts to have an inordinate number of victims. ASEAN thus pledges to work regionally to find victims or potential victims, as well as to take into account factors that affect vulnerability such as "gender, ethnicity, disability, age" — not to mention poverty.

Aside from examining compounds from orbit, human trafficking can also be detected by other satellite means. Data from satellites operated by the San Francisco-based company Planet, for example, is used by Stanford University's Human Trafficking Data Lab to seek out "forced labor" in deforested areas of Brazil's Amazon rainforest. 

Stanford officials stated in 2022 that they hope to develop an algorithm that would alert investigators to sites actively being used; increased charcoal is often a telltale sign of deforestation underway, for example. Quick action may increase enforcement while more easily rescuing victims. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: