The problem with Internet-based sex trafficking is that police can often see their victims being advertised but not actually locate them in the real world. Instead, they’re left with an image of person trapped in some anonymous hotel room. The result is both devastating and incredibly hard to track.
TraffickCam, a free mobile app to fight sex trafficking, aims to nab more flesh peddlers and free captives by enlisting the public to make those hotel rooms more recognizable. Travelers just have to download the app and take a few pictures of where they’re staying after they check in—ideally when the room isn’t cluttered by luggage. Those shots are then geotagged and uploaded to a national visual database that logs things such as carpet patterns, furniture, decor, and what’s outside the windows. When the next prostitution ad goes live, police can immediately cross-check it for matches, giving them clues about victims’ locations.
UNICEF estimates 1.5 million people are being trafficked for either sex or labor in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia, but finding those people and stopping those crimes has proven difficult. That's where TraffickCam could help: A 2015 International Labour Organization report notes that authorities could identify only about 8,500 victims in the entire western hemisphere. Out of 944 prosecutions, roughly half ended in conviction.
The system was developed through a partnership between Exchange Initiative, the social justice arm of Nix Conference & Meeting Management, a national trade show and conference planning group, and researchers at Washington University’s Media and Machines Lab. Its current database has 1.5 million pictures from 145,000 hotels representing every major metro and an 85% accuracy rate for returning the correct match within the first 20 search results. That should improve as more people share photos, which don’t include your personal data.
Why not just ask hotels to submit their own photos? First off, the less reputable ones likely wouldn't contribute. Second, the database's algorithm matches for a much larger variety of data points than a manager shooting essentially uniform stock images could provide. The key is to capture the variety of subtle changes that can occur at different day times, light settings, or with various window shade configurations among other things.
Molly Hackett, the principal of Exchange Initiative and Nix, says her group realized the need for such a clearinghouse after receiving calls from law enforcement officers asking for help identifying where some people were being held. (They also lobby against sex trafficking by asking hotel managers to sign a Meeting Planners Code of Conduct recognized by ECPAT-USA, a group against the sexual exploitation of children.) "It was kind of a shot in the dark," she says. "As an investigator, you don’t tend to stay in hotel rooms in your own city." That disconnect costs investigators precious time. But the right search engine could solve a case in milliseconds. The police access side of the portal is currently being tested in St. Louis County, Missouri. It’s expected to roll out nationally in September.
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