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President’s Message: When Technology Intersects with the Law in a BIG Way

Anthony F. Sos, Esq.

The Briefs, November 2019 / Vol. 87 No. 9

Here is the one thing I know about most lawyers. So many of us are yearning to make a real difference in people’s lives and on a grander scale, to make a difference in the world. Yet, despite professional successes and advancements, sometimes many of us can feel stuck, like we have a lot more to give and are just waiting for that opportunity to really make a difference. Well, since this Briefs publication is focusing on technology, I am excited to share with you a compelling true story about how technology intersected with the law in a monumental way, leading to the freedom of more than 2,000 slaves and the prosecution of their captors. If the stars align, one of the involved participants will be our guest keynote speaker at the January OCBA luncheon.

Nancy Coleman is the senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Maxar (f/k/a DigitalGlobe), a Colorado-based company. Maxar operates satellites in space and supporting ground infrastructure. This cohesive system allows the company to zoom in and capture images on any part of our earth’s surface, including the mighty sea, at a very high resolution. Because of Maxar’s unique capabilities to capture images literally anywhere on earth, many reporters contact the company for assistance on certain projects. However, not too long ago, Maxar accepted a call from the Associated Press and quickly learned that this call was unique.

For approximately four months, the AP had been investigating a story involving men from Southeast Asia who were being used as modern-day slaves. It was believed that the men were tricked into thinking they were getting a job working as commercial fishermen. Instead, they were kidnapped, kept at sea against their will, and forced to work as slaves. When a ship did reach the shore, the captors kept the men in cages to prevent their detection and escape. Many of the men had been missing for decades. And, it was later learned, the boats using this slave labor would rendezvous with commercial vessels at sea. The commercial vessels would take the haul for ultimate distribution through major supply chains, including in the United States. This was nothing short of modern-day human trafficking.

The AP’s initial investigation was premised on accounts from recently returned slaves, records from the government, and interviews with experts on commercial fishing. But the AP did not have enough evidence to grab the attention of the Indonesian government. Thus, looking for more concrete, solid proof, the AP investigators contacted Maxar hoping the company could secure satellite images of this slave activity. One of the problems: the traffickers turned off all their tracking devices on the boats, rendering them almost invisible.

Maxar agreed to help. In response to the AP’s request, Maxar tasked a satellite with the coordinates where it was believed a target ship was hiding. Within one day, Maxar superstar analysts secured an image of the ship with impeccable clarity. The satellite imagery provided the AP with the evidence it needed to obtain the intervention of the Indonesian government. Ultimately, they were together able to confirm the truth of the human trafficking allegations.

This was the first time Maxar’s technology had been used to observe live human trafficking. As Coleman observed in an interview for this piece, “there is a lot that goes on in the ocean because they think they can’t be seen but with developing technology and our vantage point in space, we are catching these folks.”

One week after the AP published the story, the Indonesian government began a criminal investigation, which ultimately led to more than 2,000 slaves being freed, arrests of dozens of people, seizure of ships worth millions of dollars, and the enactment of U.S. legislation aimed at creating greater transparency from food suppliers. The AP was awarded a Pulitzer prize for its “Seafood to Slaves” investigation. A video of this remarkable story can be found at:

One reason I found this story so compelling is because Coleman, and so many others involved in the investigation, are typical hardworking folks who, in the course of going about their daily business, were able to effect significant real-world change. In our everyday pursuits, perhaps especially as attorneys, we are positioned to positively impact the world in a way most of us dream of doing.

 Anthony F. Sos, Esq., is a partner at Dellecker, Wilson, King, McKenna, Ruffier & Sos, LLP. He has been a member of the OCBA since 2005.


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