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Fighting modern slavery through technology

USC computer scientists could help in the battle against underage sex trafficking

sex traffickers graphic
Traffickers recruit underage victims through social media sites, luring them with promises of love, affection or modeling jobs. (Courtesy of Peter Bollinger)

They are the lost ones, living as modern-day slaves bought, sold and brutalized for sex.

In the United States they number in the thousands, tens of thousands or more, nobody really knows for sure. They are children, mostly girls, and their pimps sometimes brand them with tattoos to show “ownership.” Robbed of their dignity, security, hopes and dreams, America’s trafficked children often end up as addicts, prisoners or corpses. Trapped in a vicious cycle, some grow up to become abusers themselves.

Previously, men wishing to exploit trafficked children would hunt for victims in underground newspapers or cruise for them in gritty back alleys. It took work. The communications revolution, though, has made finding children for illicit purposes easier than ever.

The Internet has become the No. 1 platform for hustlers, traffickers and customers, or “johns,” to buy and sell women and children for sex, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking organization.

The same technological tools that make it possible for traffickers to communicate with more people and over a greater distance than ever before can also be used to disrupt the illicit trade, said Mark Latonero, research director of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Disrupting the illicit trade

An interdisciplinary faculty team at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is at the forefront of research to employ technology to combat youth sex traffickers and to help find and free victims.

Since 2011, researchers have collaborated on a project to develop software and other tools, including big data, to help law enforcement investigate suspected cases of online trafficking activity, particularly those involving underage youth.

USC researchers have worked with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of State and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, among others.

“It is gratifying to know the Annenberg and Viterbi schools are playing a role in helping victims and survivors of trafficking,” said Latonero, co-principal investigator of the project. “If we can help just one victim, then it’s worth it, but it also has the potential to make a huge difference in one of our society’s greatest human rights issues.”

The various technologies are at different stages of development. However, USC researchers believe anti-trafficking agencies could begin deploying one or more of them within a year.

“I think these tools will be of tremendous value to law enforcement,” said Lt. Andre Dawson of the Los Angeles Police Department, who has attended presentations about the USC team’s innovative work. He heads the LAPD’s Human Trafficking Unit.

Telltale evidence

Leveraging natural language processing technologies, information retrieval and machine learning, Andrew Philpot of ISI is building tools that enable law enforcement to filter and sort through massive amounts of data quickly to find suspected underage sex trafficking victims and their enslavers.

At the simplest level, proprietary algorithms scan in a matter of minutes thousands of online sex advertisements and look for telltale evidence of child exploitation. By contrast, the same exercise would take law enforcement searching with an iPad, computer or another device hours, if not days.

“We want to be able to go to the Web and standardize, digitize, systemize, sort and store lots and lots of information every day to help identify those young people advertising sexual services,” said Eduard Hovy, co-principal investigator and longtime ISI faculty member, currently on leave at Carnegie Mellon University. He added that feedback from law enforcement would allow computers to “learn” through basic artificial intelligence techniques.

Team researchers have gathered and analyzed millions of sex ads. Hovy estimated that algorithms currently under development could eliminate more than 97 percent of them, including businesses such as massage parlors and spas with real addresses, because they lack obvious or subtle signs of sex trafficking.

What are some of those signs? Sex traffickers sometimes post online ads of minors using coded language. They might describe them as “young looking” or as a “cute girl,” Philpot said. They might also decorate ads with girlish symbols such as hearts. Computational linguistics algorithms under development by Philpot and Hovy could soon crunch data from online ads to ferret out such information.

Advanced software

Such software could also extract facial images from online ads. Algorithms identify potentially underage girls by the roundness of their faces and other features. Flagged photos are sent to an outside firm for further processing, Philpot said. In the future, young-looking faces might be matched to a national missing person’s registry, allowing law enforcement to identify underage runaway victims.

In addition, advanced software could map the movements of suspected underage victims through the phone numbers included in online ads. Because traffickers sometimes shuttle children among several cities to keep them disoriented and to avoid detection, they often run similar ads with the same phone number over a large geographic area, Philpot said. Such information could assist in the identification and apprehension of traffickers and their victims.

Advocate Tina Frundt applauded the USC team’s efforts. The founder of Courtney’s House, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of services to sex-trafficked children and their parents, knows better than most about the horrors of underage sex slavery.

At 9, her foster parents forced her into prostitution. Adopted by loving parents three years later, she soon met an older man who groomed her for months before taking her to Cleveland from her Chicago home. Frundt’s “soul mate” turned out to be a vicious thug and a hustler. In the course of 24 hours, she was raped twice, sent into the streets and viciously beaten when she failed to meet her nightly $500 quota.

Frundt eventually escaped and tried to pull herself out of that life, but fell back into prostitution. She finally left it behind at age 25.

“You just get sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said.

Frundt, who is familiar with the USC trafficking project, has high hopes for the technologies under development.

“I think it’s a great idea that could potentially save lives,” she said.

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