Privacy invasions. Surveillance capitalism. State-sanctioned control. Data breaches. Alternative ‘facts.’ Fake news. Amplification of hate. A world-wide wave of populism. It’s enough to make you throw in the towel where technology goes.

Well, hold the digital phone. Before you give up, let us introduce you to Antonio Zappulla, who is here to remind us all what technology can achieve when “it’s deployed for good.”

Zappulla is the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, an internationally-minded organization that seeks ways to harness technology to solve human problems and improve lives the world over.

Zappulla will be a featured speaker at True North 2019, the Waterloo Region conference focused on ‘tech for good,’ the second annual version of which is set to get under way June 19 for two days at the Lot42 Global Flex Campus.

His message?

Companies can achieve social impact. Business can have a purpose that extends beyond a return for shareholders and provide a return for society at large.

“The key focus areas of our organization are a free media, social impact  and human rights. Those are our three areas of intervention,” says Zappulla, speaking by telephone from his organization’s headquarters in London.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest – and Canadian-owned – news and information provider. Its arms extend into tax and accounting services, legal, insurance and risk, technology and news gathering and news dissemination. The company maintains a corporate innovation hub at Communitech, one of several such hubs it staffs worldwide.

Zappulla plans to tell the Waterloo audience about one of his organization’s most successful and intriguing initiatives – harnessing data to put a stop to human trafficking, a worldwide scourge that’s worth, he says, US$150 billion and one that had enslaved 40 million people, according to 2017 data.

In 2014, the Thomson Reuters foundation helped spearhead the Banks Alliance Against Trafficking, whereby major banks in the U.S. and the U.K. began tracking the financial fingerprints left by human traffickers.

“Traffickers exploit the formal banking system to spend, to transfer, to launder illegal profits,” Zappulla explains. “Banks have access to this data.

“[The alliance] developed and published a set of red-flag indicators of human trafficking, which alliance members committed to use for identifying suspicious financial activity and behaviour.”

So, in effect, using data to follow the trail of illegal money.

What were the indicators? Unusually high amounts of money paid for housing. Multiple residential addresses. Multiple withdrawals of large amounts of cash. Payments made at unusual hours.

“A payment made [in the middle of the night] of $100 for what was supposed to be a pedicure,” says Zappulla, providing an example.

In 2017, the program was expanded, with the creation of the European Bankers’ Alliance. This year, it will expand again with the launch of the Asia-Pacific Bank Alliance.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation – 150-people strong – additionally enlists journalists to explain and shine a light on the trafficking problem. It created a tool kit that helps banks identify the money trail left by traffickers and fashioned an education program to teach bank employees how to recognize a potential trafficker.

“Bank branch staff have eyes and ears and now have been educated in what to look for,” Zappulla says.

He’ll also speak at True North about growing concerns he has with respect to digital privacy and regulation of data – including who gains ownership of our data after we die.

“I want to look at the issue of digital inheritance,” he says.

“In Germany, a court very recently ruled that social media accounts can be inherited, treated as letters, the way that if you found letters of your grandparents in a drawer [after their deaths], you are free to read them or destroy them.

‘[But the law varies] very much country by country.

“Data is treated as a property. Is it a property? It’s one where, the more that people share it, the more valuable it becomes. If I own a piece of land and I share it with several people, the value of that land decreases.” It’s a dichotomy, he says, that needs an explanation.

True North, the CEO says, excites him because it dovetails with the work of his organization.

“Your gathering is phenomenal. I love this idea of using tech for good at a time when tech is really experiencing a huge rise in terms of advancement and in terms of adoption. I think it’s important to be reminded of what tech can achieve if it is deployed for good purposes.

“Everything we do links back to the core skills of [Thomson Reuters’]  business. If you look at our portfolio of our programs it’s really rooted into news, into training; it’s really rooted into the legal business, meaning using the law as a force for good to achieve social impact and advance rights.”

Zappulla admits he’s troubled by the recent trends of big tech, and is concerned that consumers don’t really “understand the implications when it comes to their digital privacy.”

But he sees his foundation as a tool that can, and must, help level the table. To “hold governments and corporations to account and really to be a pillar of democracy.”