Tech's New Tool in the Hunt for Human Traffickers Who Hide in Plain Sight

Pimps and abusers who advertise on the Internet with impunity may have met their match.

(Photo: Carolina Camps/Reuters)

Jun 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

For too long, the Internet has been a comfortable haunt for pimps and human traffickers who post advertising under a veil of anonymity, but University of Southern California researchers have developed technology they hope makes it more difficult for criminals to hide.

Information science professors Craig Knoblock and Pedro Szekely and their team of researchers have built an online tool that scours sites where human traffickers post ads, extracts data, and reorganizes it all into a continually updated database that American law enforcement can rely on.

These domain-specific insight graphs—DIGs for short—work like this: Law enforcement agencies faced with a human trafficking incident or a missing person case can search about 50 million sites that advertise for sex trafficking with whatever information they have available about a victim—a name, a phone number, a keyword, or even a photo.

The Internet poses an added challenge to police in their pursuit of traffickers: Because ads can be on millions of sites, it can be difficult to efficiently locate victims or identify perpetrators.

“So where else does this individual appear in our dataset? [DIG] can actually find all the ads that have a picture of that person,” said Knoblock.

That ability to pinpoint is an important development because human trafficking is a massive industry that often happens under our noses. The International Labor Organization estimated in 2012 that nearly 21 million people in the world are held in situations of forced labor.

“Pimps and traffickers can place online sex ads and advertise to much larger audiences of sex buyers because the online ads have a much further reach than someone involved in street prostitution,” said Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking. “And if there’s tens of thousands of ads across the country in a given day, law enforcement can only respond to a fraction of those ads. Plenty of the pimps and traffickers are willing to take their chances.”

Without enough police to adequately search individual sites, thousands of human traffickers get away with crime every day by hiding in plain sight—which researchers hope will be their downfall.

“What we thought would be exciting to do was…scrape all this data from various sources, put it all together in some sort of meaningful way, and then build good analysis tools and visualization tools on top of that so you could take all this data and make sense of it,” said Knoblock.

Knoblock hopes DIG’s many search options will make it a valuable tool for finding runaway children, sex trafficking victims, and those who prey on them. The tool is still in the early phases of use, and there is little data to indicate efficacy, but Knoblock says it has potential to change the game.

An agency of the U.S. Department of Defense is funding the venture and working with six law enforcement agencies to run a pilot program to test DIG and other tools.

Knoblock said several of the agencies have contacted him to report successful uses of DIG in real cases—but he said he was not allowed to share any examples.

While the pilot program is in progress, researchers are exploring whether DIG’s technology has other applications, whether in material science or in the tracking of counterfeit electronics.

For now, both researchers and leaders of human trafficking advocacy groups see promise in innovations like DIG.

“I think that the field is realizing that one of the main fronts of the battle against sex trafficking has to happen online,” said Myles.