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October 7, 2016

How Data Analytics Is Helping to Fight Human Trafficking


The scourge of human trafficking exists in every major city in the United States, where it ruins the lives of victims while enriching the traffickers. Local police often are ill-equipped to deal with sophisticated trafficking schemes, resulting in solicitation charges being filed against the victims while the real perpetrators go free. But thanks to the power of big data analytics, law enforcement has new tools to build criminal cases against the traffickers themselves.

Human trafficking is growing problem both nationally and around the world. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received reports of 14,588 sex trafficking cases inside the United States. One out of every six runaways in the US is likely forced into prostitution, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The problem is even bigger on the global stage, with about 4.5 million people trapped by traffickers in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization. In many cases, women or girls are lured from their home country to Europe or the US with the promise of good jobs, only to be trapped into sex slavery, such as the 17 Thai human trafficking victims freed from a Minneapolis brothel earlier this week.

One person who’s dedicated a big chunk of his life to ending human slavery is Eric Schles. While employed with the anti-trafficking group Demand Abolition, the data scientist worked with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, where he developed a series of tools to help detectives identify likely sex trafficking victims by analyzing publicly available information from commercial sex websites, such as the adult classified section of


The new movie “Trafficked” shines a light on the booming business of human trafficking

One of the tools Schles developed was a geographic information system (GIS) for visualizing sex trafficking data using the open source D3 reporting framework. “Google Fu was their biggest weapon,” Schles told Datanami in a 2015 interview. “That shouldn’t be the case. Google’s a great tool but it shouldn’t be the only tool. By doing the analysis, they can draw connections really fast.”

Schles, who now is working to fix the Veterans Administration’s computer system at the White House’s exclusive 18F digital service delivery group, also built a link analysis tool that allows Manhattan DA investigators to quickly identify common pieces of data scraped from websites like Backpage, the CEO of which was just arrested yesterday in Dallas, Texas, on pimping charges brought by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

By collecting and analyzing email addresses, street addresses, and phone numbers gathered off the Web, Schles’ tool finds common threads connecting people listed in the classified advertisements of commercial sex websites. He even used facial recognition tools to identify and track the photos of people featured in the ads, many of whom (but not all) are victims of trafficking. Additional analyses reveals common backgrounds used in the photography, further linking possible victims.

The combination of this link analysis of public data with non-public data that a detective might have–such as pending domestic violence charges against an individual–gives detectives a leg up on the traffickers. “Taking in those public sources, and using them in conjunction with this private data, is what allows you to fight slavery,” Schles says. “That’s more or less what my tools do.”

Schles, who started fighting human trafficking when he was 12, continues the fight part-time through his organization Hacking Against Slavery. “It turns out that doing this full time is really, really hard. You break,” he says. “But it’s important work. And I do feel better at the end of the day than I do at the beginning.”

Trafficking in Illicit Massage

Another organization seeking to unwind human trafficking rings through public data is Polaris, the Washington D.C. non-profit group that runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline.

The criminals behind human trafficking rings recently started using massage parlors as fronts for prostitution. As police started to crack down on these illicit massage businesses, they often arrested the prostitutes, who often turn out to be victims of human traffickers. This unfortunate situation prompted Polaris to begin a new program to identify the beneficial owners illicit massage businesses so they can be brought to justice.


Polaris used Palantir to visualize about 6,500 illicit massage businesses that it identified across the country

One of the Polaris data analysts tasked with digging through public records to bring illicit massage businesses into the light is Veronica Liwak. At the recent Strata + Hadoop World conference, Liwak explained to Datanami how network analysis can reveal the criminal structure behind illicit massage businesses.

“We looked at this and wondered if they might actually be networked,” she said. “We started researching it that way and we found that they actually are inter-connected structures.”

Liwak and her colleagues at Polaris found that networks of illicit massage businesses often have a retail-like structure. Once they find one beneficial owner of an illicit massage business by tracing business records, they often find that he owns several more businesses in the area. And he may have a partner who’s linked to even more.

“It’s more of a chain instead of somebody like a kingpin,” she said. “We haven’t seen that in our research. That actually may be the case, but because we do rely on publicly available data, I don’t have a clearer answer.”

Liwak relies on public data sources, such as business licenses recorded at the state and local levels, to find the beneficial owners of illicit massage businesses. Commercial sex websites also provide valuable data, such as phone numbers and email addresses, to feed into the network.

Owners of illicit massage businesses often try to shield themselves by hiding under layers of records, by using aliases, or by using a registered agent. That makes it more difficult to sort out exactly what’s going on.

According to Polaris, 26% of human trafficking victims are children

According to Polaris, 26% of human trafficking victims are children

“They do try to make themselves look as legitimate as possible,” Liwak said. “But we do have to be careful in the fact that there are companies whose sole job is to be registered agents for businesses and they may not exactly know what’s going on, although sometimes that’s hard to believe.”

The Polaris analysts use software from Palantir to actually conduct the network analyses. Palantir is used by many of the top law enforcement organizations around the world, and is regarded as extremely powerful, if expensive. It also has strict formatting requirements for input data. That’s what led Polaris to the self-service data prep software from Paxata.

“We’re lucky enough that we work with Palantir, but it does require a strict data format to get it to the point where I can import it and look at it and use their great tools like the histogram,” Liwak said. “Being able to clean up the data from difference sources has been huge.”

Over the past year, Polaris has unearthed networks of illicit massage businesses in most major cities across the country. Liwak estimates there are probably on the order of 6,500 or so illicit massage businesses operating across the nation. When Polaris uncovers definitive proof of an illicit massage business, it informs law enforcement. Several illicit massage businesses have been closed as a result.

“Our goal is to show them that this is networked,” Liwak said. “It’s a jumping off-point for law enforcement. They have to do their own investigation.  But we want to show them that if they want to make cases, they don’t have to rely on the testimony of a victim to get the conviction against the trafficker. There are networked elements, if you approach it from an organized crime viewpoint.”

As criminal organizations turn to human trafficking for profits, law enforcement will need the right tools to fight trafficking. It’s clear that data analytics can provide one piece of the solution.

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