Meet Aaron Kahler, Founder and Chief Executive at Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATII).
Bret: Hi Aaron, it’s always great to catch up with you. Thanks for taking the time to talk and to share more information about ATII, your work, and your vision for fighting human trafficking. Can you talk to us about ATII and your mission?
Aaron: Hi Bret! Thank you for being a long-time partner of ATII and for ADF's ongoing action in bringing human trafficking awareness to its followers and law enforcement clientele.
We are dedicated to combating global human trafficking and child exploitation through the disruption of operations, economics, and anonymity of modern slavery at the source. By partnering with economic gatekeepers such as financial institutions and corporations, and collaborating with law enforcement, we are able to contribute to the disruption of the operations, economics, and overall anonymity of this nefarious activity. Utilizing a holistic strategy, we offer a comprehensive suite of solutions and support for both commercial and law enforcement organizations based on our integration of data, technology, and operational infrastructure powered by our network Utility. ATII’s unique approach focuses on the use of big data technology aligned with our vast data resources channeled through forensic linking, investigative intelligence, and analytics.
Bret: You founded ATII in August of 2019 and you are approaching 3 years leading the organization. How has the public’s awareness of human trafficking changed over this time and how has this impacted your mission?
Aaron: Great question as public awareness is crucial. There are more than 40 million victims trapped in slavery and recovery is not enough. Over the course of 3 years, we have gained almost 15,000 followers and over 30 corporate partners. Awareness is certainly on the rise but we have a long way to go. ATII is encouraging corporations globally to practice corporate social responsibility and implement anti-human trafficking programs within their organizations (i.e., policies & procedures, training-live/eLearning, red flags/indicators, high-risk trafficking data, etc...). We’re also promoting financial services organizations and retail organizations to collaborate with law enforcement in the fight against modern slavery and child exploitation.
Bret: You have a background in financial crimes and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and you’ve worked for some well-known companies including MasterCard, Citibank, Deloitte, Capgemini, and LexisNexis. How did your background bring you to where you decided to found an organization focused on your mission to follow the money to fight human trafficking?
Aaron: Prior to launching the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative, I worked in the AML compliance, financial crimes, and risk management industry for nearly 20 years in a variety of different capacities. These roles include but are not limited to; working in Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) compliance for financial institutions, managing major AML regulatory engagements, leading AML & financial crimes consulting practices, and functioning as a subject matter expert Market Planner in the industry.
Human trafficking really first hit my radar indirectly back in 2014 following regulatory guidance issued by FinCEN. Additionally, Timea Nagy (activist & survivor), financial crime industry SME's including those associated with ATII (Barry Koch, Karim Rajwani, Phil DeLuca, and Peter Warrack), and industry trade/educational organizations (ACAMS, Manchester CF, ACFCS, and the IAFCI) were big resources that influenced my growing desire to take action.
As I learned more about human trafficking, opened my eyes to the realities, and came across transactional indications of trafficking in AML investigations, I saw that the vast majority of financial institutions out there did not have an anti-human trafficking program, any form of training or an ability to recognize the indicators of trafficking within their investigations.
Bret: Your college experience was also focused on Economic Crime Investigation (ECI) at Utica College. What led you to study economic crime?
Aaron: At the time, Utica College was part of Syracuse University and I was in the last graduating class to major in Economic Crime Investigation and earn a Syracuse University Degree (2003). I originally had planned on becoming a Criminal Justice major and learned about Utica's ECI program, which was the North American leader in economic crime study since 1988 and only one of its kind in the US. I was hooked once I came across the opportunity to have a focus on this curriculum, which combined intensive study in criminal justice, accounting, and computer science with a mandatory semester-long internship in the field.
Bret: While you were at Utica you interned with the Consumer Frauds Bureau of New York State Office of the Attorney General and MasterCard. How did that experience shape your career?
Aaron: I was very fortunate to be able to get practical experience in the financial crime industry through my time in college within the Economic Crime Investigation program. What solidified my interest and motivation in financial crimes were internships early in my career with the New York State Officer of the Attorney General and MasterCard. I worked as a Consumer Frauds Investigator with the AG’s Office helping people who were taken advantage of by a variety of different corporations and other individuals (such as landlords). For many years following the internship, I continued receiving Christmas cards from grateful folks I had helped when they needed it.
At MasterCard, I worked with their Fraud Management group in liaison with Federal law enforcement investigation websites dealing with child pornography and accepting credit card payments. This was a very sad but rewarding experience that I would not know at the time but has shaped my evolution as a financial crime professional, eventually culminating in what I am doing with my expertise today at ATII.
Bret: You’ve published more than a dozen articles. How do you find time to write with everything else you have going on in your life?
Aaron: This is certainly a challenge and like many, I am still working to find the right balance. It really boils down to time management, prioritization, and having the right team. I prioritize my time around efforts to support ATII as a business, continuing to promote social awareness and responsibility while leaving plenty of time for my family. I can’t do it alone either and I have an incredible team that I can lean on to fill in the gaps that I do not have the capacity to take care of myself.
Bret: Are there any books or publications you’ve read recently that you recommend to others?
Aaron: Absolutely! Ironically, a Jiu-Jitsu buddy of mine, Jason Mott has just won the 2021 National Book Award for fiction. His book is phenomenal and called "Hell of a Book".
The last 3 books I read are all fantastic and I would highly recommend each of them:
- Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink & Leif Babin
- Breath: A Life in the Flow, Rickson Gracie
- Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
Bret: ADF and ATII work closely together on the digital forensic side of the work you and your colleagues do at ATII. In addition to this work which empowers forensic examiners and investigators to leverage Dark Web data, you also work closely with financial institutions. Can you talk about ATII’s role in working with corporations and who specifically you tend to work with within companies?
Aaron: Bret, this is a great question as we work with many different kinds of organizations and a variety of stakeholders within these corporations who are concerned with the risk associated with their companies being utilized in the facilitation of financial crimes (such as human trafficking & child exploitation) and truly want to make their corporation a safer and more aware place. Our alignment with financial institutions and the commercial industry (such as retail) is usually based on our investigative/tech/data subject matter expertise and typically stems from either regulatory compliance/AML, financial crimes, legal/risk management, or cybersecurity departments. The other way our alignment occurs is through our growing Environmental Social Governance (ESG) & Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) capabilities, which take place at the most senior levels within organizations as engagement is related to their corporate culture/public image.
Bret: What can corporations do to help stop human trafficking? Does everyone have a role?
Aaron: Corporations need to look within themselves. Like I mentioned earlier, practice corporate social responsibility and implement anti-human trafficking programs within their organizations. Their staff needs to be trained on the facts of human trafficking and know how to avoid it and detect it. All Staff also needs to know how to respond if they spot a trafficking situation. Everyone plays a role, absolutely. Misinformation can cause more harm than good. We need to educate our teams on the realities we’re facing today.
Bret: I know you hire many interns every year. How can individuals get involved with ATII?
Aaron: We do have interns every quarter and we have an incredible amount of volunteers. We need the same type of skills any business needs (HR and administrative) along with the technical skills to investigate and identify victims. Anyone can reach out to our operations manager Blair at Blair@followmoneyfightslavery.org to see how they can help our organization.
Bret: What do you like to do for fun?
Aaron: What I like to do and what I have time to do are two very different things!
Once upon a time, I was very much into global travel, kiteboarding, scuba/free diving, basketball, and playing softball (especially in Central Park, NYC). Nowadays I have to limit the extracurricular activities but am fortunate enough to get to spend lots of quality time with the family exploring their interests, squeezing in some good books/media when I get the chance, and practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Bret: Do you have a favorite Netflix or podcast binge?
Aaron: My latest Netflix binge has been the new season of Ozarks and the documentary Seaspiracy (which has an interesting intersection to the human trafficking space). I also enjoy the Dad Edge Podcast, Spy Talk, and The ChewJitsu Podcast. I have recently spoken on the To Catch a Fraudster, Hidden Traffic, and Compliance Time podcasts as well.
Bret: Aaron thanks so much for all your time and everything that you do to #followmoneyfightslavery.
Aaron: It was a pleasure as always Bret. We are ready to make some big things happen with you and the ADF team this year!