Taking a modern approach to combating modern slavery

Bradley Myles, CEO, Polaris and Nick Shapiro, Global Head of Trust & Risk Management, Airbnb

A hotel clerk gets suspicious when a woman who paid cash for a weeklong stay hasn’t come out of her room and insists the room service tray be left at the door. Other staff notice a steady stream of men coming and going from the room. A long-haul trucker gets propositioned by two young girls in a parking lot and notices a man staring from a car parked nearby. Each of these bystanders reached out to report these signs of possible human trafficking — signs they’ve been trained to spot.

For years, front-line staff in the hospitality and travel industry — like attendants, clerks, and drivers — have helped countless victims of human trafficking find their way to freedom.

Imagine, then, what could happen if we expand this work to the sharing economy and layer in the power and scale of real-time technology to not just spot but help stop this horrific exploitation before it goes farther? Such is the promise of a new partnership between Airbnb and Polaris, a leading anti-human trafficking organization.

The need for additional eyes, ears, and innovation is clear. Ten years of data and analysis from Polaris’ operation of the National Human Trafficking Hotline found 3,376 cases of human trafficking involving hotels or motels as a business venue. Between January 2015 and September 2017, 2,680 victims and survivors were identified who had been trafficked at hotels and motels. The vast majority of these cases involved sex trafficking. We don’t know for sure how many of these cases were identified thanks to alert, well-trained staff, but odds are these individuals played a role in many.

Airbnb, of course, operates differently than traditional hotels or motels by connecting millions of guests every night with local hosts who are opening up their homes in more than 191 countries worldwide. Each of those millions of transactions and communications is backed up with sophisticated systems designed to keep all parties safe.

Every reservation on Airbnb is analyzed against hundreds of different signals and scored ahead of time for risk. Every host and guest is screened against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watch lists, and United States residents also undergo criminal background checks looking for prior felony convictions, sex offender registrations, and significant misdemeanors. In addition, all profile photos, listing photos, and photos sent over message threads on Airbnb are run through the PhotoDNA database checking for exploitative imagery.

Now, Airbnb will combine that unique digital footprint with Polaris’ back-end data and analysis to mine for signs of human trafficking in real time.

Together, Polaris and Airbnb will establish a robust training curriculum for Airbnb’s global team of agents and crisis managers to support any reports of trafficking and help spot signs of possible exploitation. We’ll also come up with smart protocols that allow Airbnb to share what we learn and best cooperate with law enforcement. Last, but not least, the partnership will explore how to design protocols that will better flag possible exploitation on Airbnb before it happens, while still respecting and maintaining privacy for hosts and guests.

The potential for leveraging both online and offline information to disrupt human trafficking networks is enormous — and hopefully transferrable to other technology companies. While the hospitality industry is understandably focused on stopping sex trafficking, there are also exciting possibilities for translating what we know from the sharing economy into a better understanding of labor trafficking in our supply chains. We could, for example, help uncover and disrupt the trafficking of men and women in intersectional industries, such as housekeeping or cleaning services.

The urgency of this work cannot be overstated. Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry that robs 25 million people around the globe of their freedom. It has no place in today’s world and is antithetical to the open society we deeply believe in.

We cannot end this one person, one survivor, one organization, or one business at a time. We need to scale up. The sharing economy is a burgeoning part of the solution.


Nick Shapiro is the Global Head of Trust and Risk Management at Airbnb. He was previously the CIA’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to CIA Director John Brennan. Shapiro served on the National Security Council staff and was a White House counterterrorism and homeland security aide to President Obama. Follow him on Twitter @nick_shapiro.

Bradley Myles serves as Executive Director and CEO of Polaris, a global leader in the fight to eradicate human trafficking and to restore freedom to survivors. For over a decade, he has devoted himself to combating human trafficking and modern slavery on a local, national, and global scale. Learn more at: https://polarisproject.org.