Gaining Ground Against Human Trafficking with Targeted Analytics

January 2020
Topics: Data Analytics, Government Agency Operations
Data analytics identify trends to help combat human trafficking and other crimes. Our Hermes Project team has developed a tool that flags and displays suspected human trafficking activity for law enforcement and non-governmental organizations.
Upset woman with her hand covering her face

By most counts, human trafficking is the second-most profitable transnational crime, just behind illegal drug trafficking. But behind that statistic is the ugly reality of human suffering, as thousands of these people are being trafficked against their will, and far too many of them are children.

Drawing on MITRE social media expertise and tools developed to help our Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sponsors and other government agencies make the nation safer, one of our teams launched a MITRE-funded project a year ago. They named it the Hermes Research project, after the god of trade and commerce.

The goal: deliver capabilities that government, law enforcement agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can deploy to thwart transnational organized crime such as the trafficking of humans, drugs, and weapons.

The first fruits of the MITRE team's efforts? Visual display dashboards that enable law enforcement officials and others to see, at a glance, illicit activities going on in their backyards that could indicate human trafficking. They can then hone-in and see spikes and surges in what people are doing and the criminal networks behind these activities.

"For someone working in law enforcement or for an NGO, this is very powerful," says an experienced MITRE data analyst who is advising the team.

A Global Problem Where MITRE Can Make a Difference

Why did the team choose to focus first on the human element over other types of trafficking?

"Human trafficking is a global problem—the type of challenge where MITRE's analytical expertise can make a difference," she says.

"We found that most law enforcement agencies across the U.S. use some type of analytics software to evaluate human trafficking, but it's all focusing on the supply side of things," says another team member, who directs much of MITRE's data analytics efforts.

Based on the advice of the law enforcement subject-matter experts (SMEs), the team took on the demand side. They started with the commercial sex market, where many of the victims are trafficked.

The Internet: Where They Advertise—and Where We Find Them

It's well known that nefarious actors—and society in general—use the internet to more effectively communicate and reach a wider audience.

"In this case, we're looking at niche groups interested in selling and purchasing illicit services," says the data scientist leading the MITRE team. "The internet is an effective way to advertise, at low cost and risk but with high profits, which is a big part of what's driving the spread of this activity."

The team surveyed the online commercial sex market landscape and utilized a list of prominent online sex sites provided by partner law-enforcement SMEs. They selected for their survey five cities known to be commercial sex hubs—cities that MITRE teams are already working in to combat the opioid epidemic. The team then used commercial software to "scrape" internet advertisements and forums in these cities to gather information to synthesize for analysis and visualization.

Data-Driven Intelligence for Law Enforcement

After pulling down the data, the team created algorithms and analytics to flag illicit activities that were discussed on, say, a massage parlor or escort website and are potential indicators of human trafficking. The flagged data feeds into visual display dashboards the team builds for each geographic area.

"Think of it as data-driven intel for law enforcement," one MITRE expert says. "Instead of guessing where to look or relying on information from the snitch on the corner, agents can view what's posted on open-source social media ads and blogs. They get a better picture of what's happening to make more targeted decisions."

Hermes Phase II: Widening the Net

As the Hermes capabilities grow, the team continues to pursue opportunities to pilot with outside organizations. In October, MITRE signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Rahab's Daughters, an organization that operates a global operation to rescue, rehabilitate, and reintegrate survivors of human trafficking. Our collaboration with Rahab's Daughters will support their efforts at the Super Bowl in Miami; major sporting events are known hubs for human trafficking activities.     

In alignment with the global anti-trafficking movement's "4Ps" (Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnership) Strategy, MITRE will continue to forge partnerships to offer innovative tools and techniques that provide law enforcement and NGOs with analytic and visualization capabilities to improve situational awareness and decision support for human trafficking investigations and outreach.

"We want to create partnerships where we can make contributions," says the systems engineer leading the partnership outreach efforts.

"The capabilities that our team developed work across multiple use cases, such as in the trafficking of opioids and transnational crime, which we'll look at over the coming year," says the data scientist.

"We're staying open and aware and learning all the way through this process, so we can pivot quickly when opportunity appears," says the systems engineer leading the outreach efforts.

"Just like the original Hermes, that kind of agility will enable us to help build and support the partnerships coming together to curtail trafficking."

—by Jim Chido

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