How police can fight human trafficking on its own cyber-turf

Data collection and analysis techniques currently employed in the intelligence field are paving a new way for agencies to combat human trafficking

By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety, American Military University

In today’s digital age, human trafficking is as much a cyber issue as it is a human rights issue. Whether it’s with a classified Craigslist posting or a forum buried in the depths of the dark web, many human traffickers rely on the internet to conduct their activities.

“The majority of trafficking happens online, so the good news is it can be countered with technology,” said Sherrie Caltagirone, founder and executive director of the Global Emancipation Network (GEN), a non-profit that is combating human trafficking with data analytics. “If we approach it as a data problem, it empowers us to do something about it.”

In today’s digital age, human trafficking is as much a cyber issue as it is a human rights issue.
In today’s digital age, human trafficking is as much a cyber issue as it is a human rights issue. (Photo/Pixabay)

By using data collection and analysis techniques currently employed in the intelligence field, GEN is paving a new way for organizations to combat human trafficking by identifying where victims are taken, which routes are used, and who the perpetrators are.

GEN aims to directly address the data vacuum that surrounds human trafficking, starting with its victims. According to a September 2017 report from the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 24.9 million victims of human trafficking in the world today, but Caltagirone points out that there is still a vast margin of error in such estimates. The lack of information is a major restriction on current anti-trafficking efforts.

“We want to equip organizations and non-profits with the tools and technology they need to reduce the gap between the victims identified and those we think are out there,” Caltagirone said.

Using Data Analytics to Find Traffickers

To find traffickers, their online personas must be traced to their real life identities. GEN uses data collection tools to scrape, or copy, information from webpages that could be related to traffickers. This includes data such as usernames, emails, locations and phone numbers. It also includes keywords, such as “fresh” or “new in town,” and other known indicators of trafficking.

“The goal is to find suspicious patterns or activity in the noise,” said Caltagirone. “For example, why would a phone number pop up in multiple geographic places at the same time? That indicates some kind of call center behavior.”

This method of scraping for specific indicators works particularly well for extracting useful information from sites that contain both legitimate and illegitimate activity, explained Caltagirone, such as Craigslist or Backpage. By scraping both text and images, GEN is able to target only the relevant data.

On other websites, such as those that live on the dark web, it can be useful to scrape entire forums. “In those places we want all the data because it’s all interesting to us,” said Caltagirone. “On one chat forum we investigated, it looked like they were talking about The Walking Dead TV show, but it was really customers in the escort space reviewing how their dates went.”

GEN receives its data analytics and intelligence solutions from the data analytics software company Splunk, through the company’s Splunk4Good initiative. The program provides nonprofit organizations with free software licenses and training for the technology, which GEN uses to compile the raw data into a secure, searchable analytics database. GEN also encourages other anti-trafficking organizations to co-host their data with GEN’s. This allows users to correlate data across previously disparate sets of information to identify and target more perpetrators.

The faster data is collected, the sooner users can pull relevant information from it, including indicators of identity and movement. Time is a critical factor when dealing with human trafficking cases. However, for many law enforcement agencies and NGOs that are trying to track traffickers, searching for information remains a very time-consuming and manual process.

“They are literally typing a phone number or user handle into Google,” said Caltagirone. “In the meantime, victims are being moved and abused over and over again. With Splunk, we’re able to collect data in an automated and repeatable way to shrink time.”

Who Can Benefit from Human Trafficking Data?

GEN provides its counter-trafficking data to users for free, but because of the sensitive nature of the information, it is only accessible by organizations that have a legitimate need for it. GEN has partners in four different areas that are able to use and interact with the data in a variety of ways:

  1. Researchers such as academics and policymakers who are familiar with code and can interact with raw data to answer questions about trafficking.
  2. Government users such as law enforcement, district attorneys, homeland security, and the intelligence community who can use the data to catch perpetrators.
  3. Nonprofit organizations spanning from legal aid, to the medical community, to victim providers like shelters that can co-host their data with GEN.
  4. Commercial enterprises such as Airbnb or Expedia that want to block traffickers from using their websites and services.

“Many of our partners aren’t tech-savvy and have limited resources, people and time,” said Caltagirone. “We want our users to see this technology as a force multiplier for good because it’s helping them do what they’re already doing.”

If users have a particular need or concern, GEN can also facilitate subject matter expertise sharing across their public, private and nonprofit partners.

But while GEN wants data analytics to empower its users to do their jobs more efficiently, there must also be safeguards in place to shield these techniques from wrongdoers. In addition to limiting access to specific organizations, GEN employs a security verification that documents who accessed what data and when.

“There is absolutely an insider threat because someone could be syphoning data off to traffickers,” said Caltagirone. “We are very careful to not publicly share specific tools or mechanisms that are most effective because we don’t want traffickers to change their models of behavior.”

“Traffickers aren’t really being watched in a systematic way so they conduct their activities openly and are sloppy with their identity,” she continued. “In the future, what we do to hunt them will need to evolve with what they’re doing.”

The Future Potential of Data Analytics

GEN is currently concentrating on combating sex trafficking because it has the most traceable digital footprint, but their mission is to expand into labor trafficking and all other forms of global trafficking. Furthermore, Caltagirone hopes that GEN will grow to include predictive modelling, which will shift anti-trafficking efforts from a reactive space to a preventative space.

“We can inform law enforcement to act on what has already happened, but we also want to offer a data-led approach to prevent trafficking,” she said. “Can we intercede at a critical point in something so that someone is not exploited?”

GEN is planning on integrating an automated interface that would help commercial users prevent traffickers from using their services for nefarious activity. For example, if Amtrak notices that an individual is trying to make a suspicious booking, they can query GEN’s database and ask if they’ve seen that credit card or phone number.

“Yes or no – that’s all they need to know,” said Caltagirone. “If it’s no, they can go ahead and book the service with confidence. If the answer is yes, they can make a decision to take further action that would prevent that trafficker from moving that victim.”

GEN’s platform is currently in its final beta test phase, but a number of law enforcement agencies and DAs have already enlisted its help on certain investigations. GEN plans to roll out to more users in March 2018.

About the Author: Jinnie Chua is the assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. She can be reached at

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