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North Hills Monthly

Local Organizations Combat Sex Trafficking through Software, Safe Havens

Apr 01, 2018 09:36AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Emily Kennedy

Sex trafficking is a national crisis. Although any child of any age of any socioeconomic background can fall victim, the most vulnerable population is girls between the ages of 12 and 14, particularly runaways or those who have been bounced around in the foster care system. Although some perpetrators find their victims through online ads, most approach the girls in person, promising too-good-to-be-true offers, such as a ‘modeling’ opportunity or a promise to be taken care of in some way. Oftentimes, girls unwittingly find themselves pulled into a vortex of sex trafficking from which it becomes very difficult to escape.

Fortunately, there are local organizations that are making an impact in the fight against trafficking.

In 2011, when she was a student at Carnegie Mellon University, Emily Kennedy began researching ways to help law enforcement track down victims of human trafficking and their perpetrators, as many of these criminals advertised online.  

“That was the goal of my research: how can we use technology to empower law enforcement?” said Kennedy. “Over the years, we have seen the ways technology can help and make a game-changing impact in this space.”

Building upon what she had started at CMU, when she moved over to their Robotics Institute in 2014, Kennedy established a start-up company called Marinus Analytics. Kennedy’s team has developed a suite of software tools called Traffic Jam that law enforcement officers across the country have utilized to successfully locate victims, as well as identify and prosecute the traffickers who prey upon these women.

By targeting specific key or indirect language, the software can swiftly analyze sex trade postings and websites that are disguised as ads for something sounding more innocent.

A more recent component of the Traffic Jam software is one that allows for facial recognition. Previously, when a police officer had a picture of a victim, he or she had to manually sort through photos to find a potential match, something that could take hours or even days. The new software cuts this process down to seconds.

Kennedy explained that they have about two million faces identified in their database. “Detectives can upload a photo of a victim from anywhere, like social media, and it will search all of the faces we have identified. Within seconds, it will show them if there is an ad with that person,” said Kennedy, adding that it works even when photos are grainy or were taken in bad lighting.

Kennedy said that since the software’s facial recognition component was released this past June and distributed to hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the nation, there has been an 88 percent success rate in finding positive matches of sex trafficking victims.

In collaboration with a different organization, the company has plans to branch out internationally, as the problem is similarly pervasive in Asia.

“Our ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the time that it takes to get to a victim’s identity and location, and to help law enforcement use technology to its fullest extent in a way that is not disruptive and that fits into their existing workflow,” said Kennedy. “We want to help rescue as many victims as possible and give them a chance to live a free life.”

However, once these victims are free, where do they go next? Many girls who have exited trafficking have broken ties with their families or are unskilled. This is where Living in Liberty comes in.

Elizabeth Echevarria founded the nonprofit in 2012 with the mission of rescuing sex trafficking victims, as well as helping these women transition toward becoming productive members of society. In addition to providing safe shelter and job training, the organization also engages in awareness and prevention training to schools and other audiences.

Echevarria said that that one major challenge is the high rate of recidivism. “It takes up to 14 times before they are able to successfully exit from this life, so we may see them take five steps forward and eight steps backward,” she explained. “We don’t stop working with them.” Echevarria added that they see 20 to 30 women per week at their various drop-in centers.

Despite the many obstacles women face in exiting trafficking and having a successful re-entry into normal life, Echevarria said that she believes that strides are being made. “I’d say definitely there’s been an impact on awareness. There are more cases being reported to the FBI, but we still need to improve our laws; it’s been hard to prosecute cases,” she said.

Echevarria is aware of Kennedy’s Traffic Jam software, having been trained on the prior software that used phone numbers to track young girls.

“With this new software, it is really going to up the game,” she said. “I think the biggest impact is for law enforcement and for children that go missing. It’s a powerful tool.”