HK bosses arm iPods to fight people smugglers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


iPods and iPhones are being modified for use in the war on people trafficking in an ingenious initiative driven by executives from some of Hong Kong's top companies.

In their first project, members of the Mekong Club - executives drawn from top law firms, banks, accounting firms and telecom companies to combat trafficking - are creating iPods and iPhones that can communicate with trafficking victims.

Software installed on the devices will show the flags of the six Mekong countries and then go through a list of questions in the victim's own language to establish if they are being trafficked and need help.

If trials are successful, the Mekong Club hopes to see the devices used by law enforcement officers across the region to communicate with victims of trafficking.

The modified iPods and iPhones are expected to be particularly useful in dealing with trafficked people on board so-called 'slave galleons' - ships manned by trafficking victims from different countries that operate in Southeast Asian waters.

Trials are due to start in the coming weeks and the Mekong Club, set up to help the estimated 9.5 million victims of human trafficking across Asia, hopes to have the devices in use across the region by next year.

The idea for the device came from the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (Uniap), which set up the Mekong Club to tackle trafficking in six countries - China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

'An iPod or smartphone can be a fantastically important device in law enforcement,' said Uniap's regional project manager, Matt Friedman, whose team works closely with other UN agencies. 'Two years ago you wouldn't have thought of this as an option because the technology wasn't there. Now, how couldn't you think of it as an option?

'It will take two months to do the field testing. We have a donated iPod. We have the application built into it by one of the board members' companies. We just need to get down there and test it.'

The Mekong Club will later seek private funding to distribute the devices. 'Even a simple donation of an iPod or an iPhone will be a heroic thing,' Friedman said. 'It will get into the hands of a police officer and he can use the donation to take on the bad guys.'

The initiative comes ahead of the Mekong Club's first board meeting later this month when executives from some of the city's top companies - operating under a necessary cloak of anonymity - will commit themselves to the anti-trafficking battle.

'The private sector has really demonstrated a significant interest in wanting to be a part of this process,' Friedman said.

'Two or three years ago there was a certain amount of hesitancy. Now they get the idea that we all share the same world and in this world the problems belong to all of us and the private sector has not only an option but a responsibility to be involved.'

The Mekong Club aims to draw on the business acumen of its members to come up with initiatives to tackle trafficking and Friedman said members' input was already proving invaluable.

'The private sector is where human trafficking plays out. It just happens to be the ugly side of the private sector - but businesses know best how to fix these things,' he said.

'I've been doing counter-trafficking work for almost 20 years but it's almost like on a totally new lane. We are getting suggestions from people and I'm saying 'Wow, why did I never think of that?' It gives us a completely fresh perspective and I see it as a new frontier in how we address the issue of human trafficking.'

Details of the Mekong Club are at