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New app uses crowdsourced photos to detect sex traffickers and their victims

February 9, 2017

According to the International Labor Organization, of the 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labor, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The United States remains a major hub for this illegal industry as 7,572 cases of human trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2016 alone. This numbers, they show, been increasing every year since 2012.

Investigators trying to track down sex traffickers and their victims face a difficult task. Analyzing the online advertisements traffickers use to entice customers to have sex with their victims has, until now, proven particularly challenging. While the settings of these photos can often provide vital clues as to where the victim is being exploited, the ads are simply too numerous for investigators to scan each one individually.

This is where a new app called TraffickCam can help. The smartphone app uses crowdsourced photos of hotel rooms to help law enforcement agencies identify where victims are located and subsequently pursue sex traffickers. The idea is to get travelers to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in and upload them onto the TraffickCam site. The app’s image analysis tools will then transform these pictures into a set of data points using features of the room such as the carpet pattern, paintings on the wall and landmarks visible from the window. From there investigators will be able to cross-check the advertisements of victims online with the app’s vast database of photos.

The app was developed by Exchange Initiative, an organization that works to raise awareness and help combat sex trafficking around the world, alongside a team of researchers at Washington University. Speaking to CNN, Kimberly Ritter, director for development at Exchange Initiative, said that since launching in June 2016 the company had already added more than 150,000 hotels to the database and more than 100,000 people were currently using the app. Ritter hopes TraffikCam will soon be rolled out worldwide. “With this being such new and cutting-edge technology, we need to perfect it here in the States and then we’ll look to making it globally accessible” she told CNN.

While the app may provide a vital resource for investigators, it cannot, however, get around every tactic currently being used by traffickers to evade detection. Ritter explained to CNN that it was ‘luck of the draw” whether the victim would still be in the hotel room identified through the app when law enforcement officials arrived. Often, she said, traffickers will post photos from a central location and then drive the victims to different locations depending on where respondents to the ads were based. Still, it is another tool in the box of investigators attempting to eradicate this burgeoning industry and she remains hopeful the app can help unite the public in this endeavor.

Read the full story at CNN.


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