Public cloud provider Amazon Web Services is partnering with governments and NGOs to apply cloud technology to human trafficking, terrorism and famine.
Under AWS’s “Tech For Good” initiative, solutions have been developed to scan the dark web for images of missing children, monitor terrorists and identify the conditions that lead to famine.
During the public cloud provider’s annual conference in Las Vegas overnight, leaders from the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, FBI and the World Bank provided details on how they are using cloud technologies.
Finding missing children
Currently there is no universal definition of missing children and most countries do not have a database of missing minors, according to Amazon Web Services VP of worldwide pubic sector, Teresa Carlson.
“The [details of children] that are missing are not shared. There’s no way to share this information around the world,” Carlson said.
Following discussions with stakeholders including several world leaders Carlson said AWS has, in partnership with the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), developed the Global Missing Children’s Network (GMCN) engine.
“It does two things. It scans millions of online images to find photos of missing children and it places digital alerts about missing children in communities at the right time,” she explained.
The cloud technology is built on AWS AI and machine learning tools. It gives often “under resourced” law enforcement agencies and schools access to cutting edge technology, according to Maura Harty, president and CEO of ICMEC, something they may never have otherwise had.
“That clue that comes up from a GMCN engine search might be just the thing they need to connect some dots and reunite a child with their parents.”
Harty said the new tool and her organisation’s ongoing expansion will help fight the scourge of children trafficking, but it is a problem that requires collaboration.
“When a child isn’t where they are supposed to be they might not be protected. They may have been engaged in all kinds of behaviour they don’t want to be engaged in: child sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation, prostitution, common criminality,” Harty said.
“And so it’s incumbent upon all of us.”
Fixing the FBI’s ‘data crisis’
The FBI is in a “data crisis” and is looking to cloud technology to solve it. Several of the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks were well known to the FBI but the disparate databases and systems hampered efforts to identify them and respond to their attacks.
Major terrorist attacks on US soil were FBI “failures” which could have been prevented, according to FBI deputy assistant director, Christine Halvorsen.
“These [terrorists] were the people that were the unknowns and the knowns… Someone had their inner holdings. They were in the data.
“But we didn’t put the puzzle together quick enough stop these tragic events from happening.”
Disparate data systems across government agencies, universities and NGOs were to blame, Halvorsen said.
She explained that typically the FBI had also struggled to process and analyse the mountains of data in a timely way following terror attacks, a challenge that would only get worse if traditional approaches were maintained.
For example, following last years mass shooting in Las Vegas which killed 58 people and injured hundreds more, the FBI needed to track the gunman’s whereabouts in the days preceding the attack.
According to Halvorsen it took eight FBI agents working 24 hours a day over three weeks to find and analyse the video footage of the attacker in the lead up to the shooting. She said AWS facial recognition technology could have achieved the same results in a single day.
Had the technology been available to the FBI at the time it would have freed up considerable resources and improved the investigation.
“Being able to not pull people off [investigations] and have computers do it for us in and have cloud technology do it for us is very, very important,” she said.
Halvorsen, a 20-year FBI veteran said she started her career focusing on gangs in New York City. The biggest technology challenge she faced then was pagers and flip phones but that has changed rapidly, she said.
“Technology is what is driving the threat today… We are in a different world. A completely different world.”
And while cloud technology is helping, it is equally important to change the culture of the 110-year-old FBI, Halvorsen said.
In 2017, over 20 million people in east Africa were at risk of famine, according to The World Bank. $1.8 billion was contributed to fight the famine.
But the majority of aid was applied in a reactive way and much of the famine could have been prevented or at least preempted, according to Frank Bousquet, senior director at The World Bank.
Bousquet argues the approach to famines must turn to early detection and prevention, and that cloud technology could help.
The Famine Action Network (FAN), a global initiative dedicated specifically to preventing famine is using emerging technologies to uncover the conditions that lead to famine, allowing early intervention.
Acting early can save lives and up to 50 per cent of aid budgets, according to Bousquet. The money can also be better distributed. FAN has partnered with AWS to develop a system to allocate aid dollars to where they are most effective at preventing famine, based on real time data.
But moving finances upstream means FAN must be very confident in the data and it must be available in real time. However, traditional reporting tools used to collect data on famine conditions can be inaccurate and infrequent.
“Right now the international community conducts three types of assessment,” Bousquet said. “Comprehensive assessment for food insecurity, of drought [and] death.”
“In some cases it takes a lot of time and resources to obtain those assessments.”
Bousquet said disruptive technology can help fill in the gaps, providing more accurate and frequent data. By harnessing that technology FAN is able to provide forecasts up to six months earlier and distribute finances accordingly, he said.
Ultimately FAN is able to connect data with financing and action, Bousquet said.
“We have an opportunity to prevent one of the greatest tragedies of the world today and FAN, in partnership with AWS and others can make it a reality.”