Students going to college in a small town in Ohio don’t necessarily expect to get involved in combatting international human trafficking. But that’s exactly what’s happening at Defiance College, which prides itself on giving its students the best of both worlds: the benefits of a small college with individualized attention for each student together with a whole world of opportunities.
That world of opportunities has translated into a wide range of projects, including setting up and running businesses as part of the college’s Business Advantage Program, investigating cold cases for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit, managing a wildlife preserve as a living laboratory, making microfinance loans to small businesses in Jamaica, doing chemical analysis of the drinking water in Belize, and much more.
Now Defiance College students can add to that list: assisting a faculty member in using digital forensics skills to combat human trafficking.
For example, recently two Defiance College students (Beth Wesche and Matt Coons) assisted Defiance College faculty member Tim Wedge in developing a training scenario for the Qatar Foundation for Combatting Human Trafficking, where Wedge was a guest lecturer at a training conference this past November. Coons, a sophomore, says he enjoyed being able to assist his professor with the project. “I feel that I was able to help out those who are fighting human trafficking in the Middle East and gain valuable real-world experience at the same time.” Conference participants were taught the basics of preserving digital evidence such as e-mail, instant messages, scanned images, and IP addresses.
Attendees included men and women working in law enforcement, information technology and victim services from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE), nations Wedge describes as having “strong, healthy relationships with the outside world.”
Other Defiance College students are working with Wedge to plan awareness events, while others are learning ways to apply their skills to this international problem through Wedge’s course entitled Introduction to Global Slavery.
Fighting human trafficking has become of goal of Wedge who has combined his knowledge of forensic science and information technology to become specialized in anti-human trafficking in the cyber world.
“I am thrilled that our students, working together with Tim Wedge, are now able to get experience and make a real contribution in addressing this international problem,” said Defiance College president Mark Gordon, who has experience dealing with this issue as well from his days as a professor at New York’s Columbia University, where he advised a group of graduate students preparing a study on modern-day slavery for the American Anti-Slavery Group. “These are precisely the kinds of issues that we want our students to be able to work on, so that they can both expand their horizons and also get valuable experience that will enable them to stand out when applying for jobs and to graduate schools.”
Considered modern-day slavery, human trafficking victims can range from domestic workers to farm workers to individuals forced into sex trade. And, many of these victims of control and exploitation are children, society’s most vulnerable targets.
The statistics are staggering.
- According to the U.S. Department of State in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, there are an estimated 27 million men, women and children in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world.
- The International Labour Office in Geneva, Switzerland, reported that in 2005 an estimated $32 billion in annual revenue was being generated from all trafficking activities. One-half of this profit was made in industrialized countries.
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are forced into prostitution every year.
Wedge’s digital forensic expertise recently prompted an invitation from the Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking to speak at the November training conference.
Wedge, who came to Defiance College in 2011, says even though there are many people working in the field of anti-human trafficking, his expertise is often called upon because there are few who specialize in using digital forensics and data mining to uncover the criminal activity. “I think it’s an area where we are missing the mark. It’s very difficult to detect,” he says.
He explains that traffickers brainwash their victims, shielding and masking them from detection by law enforcement. He has learned to apply technology to the problem.
Wedge notes that human trafficking is much more prevalent than most people believe. “It’s everywhere, and in some places it’s abysmal.” Trafficking tends to be worse in countries with corrupt government, civil strife, or lack of governmental control.
“Some of it happens literally right under our noses, and we just don’t see it,” says Wedge. He developed a passion for fighting human trafficking after working in military intelligence in Iraq. “I came across suspected human trafficking cases, and the best I could do was get the victims deported back to their country of origin with no action taken against the suspected traffickers. We couldn’t investigate the cases any further than that. This left a very sour taste in my mouth, and I felt horrible and resolved to do something about it.”
When Wedge returned to the U.S. from Iraq, he finished work on a master’s degree. He was contacted by Dr. Gregg Gunsch about a faculty position at Defiance College. Wedge didn’t imagine that a small liberal arts college he’d “never heard of” would be a good fit for his aspirations. But, he learned that the college supported his wish to continue his fight against human trafficking. And, he was impressed with the interaction between the College’s programs in forensic science and digital forensic science.
Since coming to DC in 2011, Wedge has been working with the Family Justice Center and the Northwest Ohio Rescue and Restore and is applying for grants from national organizations.
Interacting with students either in digital forensics classes or his course, Introduction to Global Slavery, Wedge says students respond to the subject with interest. “Most people, once they learn how bad things are, really want to get involved,” he says. “The only reason we as a country aren’t doing more is because people truly don’t realize how bad it is. … Sometimes the perception is that victims are in this situation because of their own poor decisions, but that is typically not the case.
“The more you pull at the thread, the more you discover how really bad it is. Chances are you’ve eaten at a restaurant that has victims of human trafficking working there. You’ve probably eaten vegetables that were picked with slave labor, or a candy bar for which sugar or cocoa beans were picked or processed with slave labor.”
Wedge, who served 22 years with the U.S. Navy, also spent eight years with the National White Collar Crime Center where he learned many of his digital forensic skills.
He is currently working with students Bryant Green and Courtnie Vaughan of the college’s Criminal Justice Society to plan an awareness event on campus later this spring.
March 7, 2012