Catching Child Sex Traffickers on the Internet


As child sex traffickers increasingly turn to the Internet to facilitate their black market activities, law enforcement and advocates are following them into cyberspace.

Researchers, policy makers and advocates gathered at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore yesterday to discuss innovations that could save victims of child sex trafficking.

“We are working energetically, as part of a growing movement, to mobilize the power of data and tech innovation, to help win the fight against the evil of child sex trafficking,” said Todd Park, who serves as Chief Technology Officer of the United States, a White House position created by President Barack Obama in 2009.

The new technologies discussed yesterday have the potential to revolutionize how America targets one of society's most disturbing crimes.

Authorities can track the digital footprints of traffickers and are building online communications platforms to share information about victims, the group was told. Facial recognition technology has the potential to match missing persons photos to images used in Internet sex ads.

Aiding Victim Treatment

The two-day symposium, which ends today, aims to integrate mental health research, law enforcement, survivor advocacy, technology, epidemiology, criminal justice, and public policy in order to aid the treatment of child sex trafficking victims.

It was part of a White House initiative focused on identifying “gaps in research, best practices, and evidence to improve the lives of sexually exploited children.”

While yesterday's schedule included a series of public speeches by leading policy makers and researchers, day two is a closed session of working groups aiming to generate policy recommendations.

In addition to Park, public officials at yesterday's gathering included U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell; Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley; Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Rep. Renee Elmers (R-NC).

Among the most pressing issues those in attendance are aiming to tackle, is a paucity of quantitative research on child sex trafficking.

“Numbers are difficult to obtain, and even harder to verify,” said Mohamed Mattar, the executive director of The Protection Project at Johns Hopkins, which promotes international compliance with human rights standards.

“No known studies exist that quantify the trafficking of children.”

But others participants said that kind of information may soon be available.

Sebelius noted that through a federal hotline, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, “we've been able to identify more victims than ever before.”

20,000 calls

The Center fielded over 20,000 calls in 2012, Sebelius said.

Mark Latonero, research director at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Center on Communications Leadership and Policy, said his department has been experimenting with more unique quantitative tools.

“If something is visible online, it immediately becomes digital data,” Latonero said. “You can store it, you can capture it and you can analyze it. “

At USC, researchers use a computer program to comb through online ads on sites known for illicit sex sales, such as, Latonero said.

The program analyzes word choices and geographic indicators to spot clues that might lead to child sex trafficking victims. In one batch of 50,000 ads highlighted by Latonero, the word “girl” was mentioned 14,749 times.

From that same batch of ads, researchers discovered that just 100 phone numbers were associated with about 25 percent of the postings.

Latonero highlighted the burgeoning field of facial recognition technology as a possible boon for victim identification.

He said researchers have been “testing out” technology that could match photos posted by sex traffickers with images of missing persons.

However he cautioned that the technology is still in its infancy.

“I will say that every time I see a commercial (recognition) product that works, it gives me hope,” Latonero said.

Editors Note: For further reporting on this issue, see TCR's april 24, 2011 report, “Exposing the Sex Traffickers on the work of film-maker Mimi Chakarova.

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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