Per the International Labour Organization’s figures, an estimated 40.3 million people were forced into a modern form of slavery—including forced labor and sexual exploitation—in 2016, meaning there are 5.4 victims for every 1,000 people in the world. One in four victims was a child.
Trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide, and about a $1 billion industry in the U.S.—with missing, runaway and foster children the most vulnerable population. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, an estimated one out of six endangered runaways in 2016 was likely a victim of sex trafficking.
Hannah Rivard, an officer with the Fort Worth Police Department, said stats are hard to come by but that she’s seen studies that say a single massage parlor in Houston can make $100 million a year.
The rise of sites like Craigslist in 1995 and Backpage.com in 2004 made it easy for traffickers to advertise online. Kennedy said traffickers want control, so when they worked with victims on the street, they usually hung around nearby, were in more potential danger themselves and couldn’t remain as anonymous. The internet, however, makes it much harder to tie any illegal activity back to the perpetrator.
It also makes it easier for johns.
“On the internet, you can buy anything,” Rivard said. “When it went to girls, it just made it that much easier for the johns to distance themselves. … They don’t have to know where to go on the streets … and get their face out there and drive around and risk being found by the police. … Do we have good stats on the numbers from [before the internet] versus now? No, of course we don’t, but it certainly provided a huge, huge market.”
Technology has also yielded better tools for law enforcement. That includes Marinus’ Traffic Jam, which Kennedy started developing when she was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s a suite of AI tools, including facial recognition, that came out in 2013 and helps identify victims. It now has a database of over 210 million ads.
“Every day, tens and even hundreds of thousands of escort ads are posted online,” Kennedy said. “We scrape the top escort sites and put them into Traffic Jam to make them searchable. The goal is to take all of the massive amount of data on the internet that’s relevant and turn it into actionable intelligence.”
That data includes phone numbers, locations and now photos after Marinus added a feature called FaceSearch in 2017.
FaceSearch uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, predictive modeling and geospatial analysis. This allows detectives to start with a photo of a missing child to determine whether a potential victim has been advertised online.
The Fort Worth Police Department has been using Traffic Jam for about a year and a half, along with other software including Spotlight, which Rivard said provides more graphs and charts, including spider charts, that illustrate how phone numbers from ads are connected.
Detectives previously relied on phone numbers to track victims via Google searches, but traffickers use burner phones and get new numbers frequently, making such searches more challenging.
“This is an extremely slow and tough manual process that would not for most cases show you all of the ads,” Kennedy said. “One, because of human error, but also because traffickers delete old ads, so they are not on Google and can’t be found.”
Rivard agreed, but noted Traffic Jam crawls sites every 20 minutes, meaning it captures almost all the ads and puts them into a database.