48 Slaves: Slaves to Tech

The world in which we live grows more dependent on technology with every passing day. Even now, you are reading this on a computer, laptop or mobile device. Unfortunately for millions of individuals — many of them children — our dependency rests on their shoulders.

Many metals go into the production of these technical marvels we take for granted. One of the most problematic is coltan, or columbo-tantalite, which when refined becomes tantalum. Coltan’s unique properties, including the ability to hold a high electrical charge, make it ideal for use in capacitors. Useful not only for computers and cell phones, this ore is also essential for the manufacture of jet engines, missiles, ships, weapons systems, camera lenses, hearing aids, airbag protection systems, gaming consoles like xbox and playstation, and numerous other devices in regular use. Multiple countries host coltan deposits, but the largest by far is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation torn by poverty and war. It is here where an estimated 800,000 children dig the precious mineral out of the earth with their hands and feet, some in pit mines, others in stream beds. With constant exposure to hazardous conditions, radioactive minerals and dangerous tools, disabling accidents are common. An average of 6.6 children die in the mines every month from soil collapses alone.

Because many traffickers in coltan-rich areas use their profits from the sale of this and other technically necessary minerals in part to purchase arms for their war, coltan is considered a “conflict mineral.” The nickname is well-deserved for other reasons, as well, not the least of which is the enforced recruitment of child soldiers, rape and sexual violence that surround its acquisition. In addition, coltan mining camps also directly damage the surrounding environment; large numbers of men in the camps cut trees for poles, destroy the stream beds, and decimate the local wildlife population — including threatened and endangered species — with poaching for their food.

Coltan isn’t the only mineral at the center of trafficked miners. Illegal mining of tungsten, tin, copper, gold, and cobalt — used in rechargeable batteries for everything from laptops to hybrid electric cars — also perpetuates the problem of trafficking. But the connection between slavery and modern technology goes beyond the mines. Factories in eastern Asia where these products are manufactured often use slave-like conditions. Human rights violations in all their many forms have been found at one stage of production or another in the supply lines of all the companies who make our devices. Even the Internet itself has played a central role in the rising numbers of individuals, especially children, sold in America and other countries. Through the anonymity it affords, traffickers and buyers can achieve a distance from the transaction which makes it easier to escape detection.

The connection between trafficking and technology has received wide attention in the last decade, so much so that technology-based companies are finally paying attention. Intel began to manufacture microprocessors using conflict-free tantalum3, and are working toward their second goal, which is to produce the world’s first microprocessor that is totally conflict-free by the end of 2013. To this end, Intel Corporation is currently implementing a verification system at the smelter level, where the raw ore is refined, in order to ensure transparency in their claims. As of the writing of this entry, they have mapped over 90% of their supply chain and visited smelter sites in 20 countries.

Ironically, technology and computers are also being used to fight trafficking in human beings. In late 2011, Microsoft Corporation’s Research Department worked together with its Digital Crimes Unit to draft an RFP (Request for Proposals) for scholarly research into the role of technology in sexual slavery (specifically where children are involved). The project also sought to identify new ways technology might be used to intervene when trafficking is identified. Six winners were selected in early 2012 and at this time the projects are ongoing. The grants awarded to the recipients totaled $185,000. Microsoft also collaborated with Skype and other sponsors to support the first-ever, all-female, international “hackathon” this year at university campuses around the world. The event gave participating women the opportunity to help find answers to how the Internet might be used to protect and defend trafficking victims.

And hey! There’s an app for that! The Department of Defense’s Combating Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) now offers a mobile app for Apple and Android phones with which their people can train on the go to spot and stop human trafficking. With this resource, military agencies or first responders in suspected trafficking have easy access to regularly updated information. They’re not alone. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials and even commercial flight crews are also training with computer models to spot and stop trafficking in human beings.

Technology has become a cornerstone of the developed world, so our cell phones and laptops and iPods aren’t likely going away anytime soon. We can only stop technology’s role in human rights violations by demanding supply chain transparency, as Intel is working to provide. It’s worth remembering that as more companies follow this example, prices may well go up. We have to be willing to support that increase if it means our upgrades don’t come at the expense of another’s freedom.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/29/30; some original links no longer function)