A new partnership between TellFinder Alliance and two researchers at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania kicked off in February this year — coincidentally at the same time that the coronavirus pandemic became a global crisis.
One potential hidden outcome of the pandemic makes the work of these researchers, who are analyzing recruiting patterns in sex trafficking, even more important. “New opportunities for organized crime to profit from the crisis are emerging,” says Ilias Chatzis, the Chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking Section. “This means traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus.”
TellFinder Alliance is a global network of law enforcement, academic, non-profit, and technology partners adapting and advancing technology to counter the crime of human trafficking. Over 300 partners in North America, Europe, and the UK are engaged in this effort.
In order to advance their priority of breaking down the silos that can hinder counter-trafficking efforts, TellFinder Alliance is committed to partnering with academic researchers to generate new insights that could be of benefit to law enforcement.
Hamsa Bastani, Assistant Professor at Wharton, and Pia Ramchandani, a Wharton doctoral candidate, discovered the work of TellFinder Alliance when they came across a news article referencing the Alliance's work in the sex trafficking space. A few conversations with Emily Wyatt, Co-chair of TellFinder Alliance, revealed many overlapping interests and collaboration possibilities.
According to Ramchandani, “sex trafficking is a key example of technology potentially being used for harm as vulnerable individuals are recruited and sold through social media, job websites, etc. It is important to understand how this is happening in order to secure better protections for individuals.”
After a few meetings with Wyatt and Chris Dickson, TellFinder Alliance’s Technical Director, Bastani and Ramchandani submitted a grant proposal to The Wharton Social Impact Initiative. Ramchandani shares: “[Wharton] is very excited about the opportunity because the work that TellFinder is doing is so unique. They also strongly support collaborations because their goal is to be very impact-oriented, and when you’re doing a collaboration with someone who’s actually in the field the results are more valuable.”
Bastani and Ramchandani report that at least 20% of recruitment is occurring online, and they suspect that deep web data will connect to surface web activity (like a Craigslist ad, for example). Ramchandani says: “We hypothesize that most of the recruiting is going on on the regular internet, targeting vulnerable victims who might be in need, who may be under age, who might not have the right guidance to avoid the traps. That’s where we’re trying to connect between the deep web and the surface web. Also, it could be that sales and recruiting are going on in completely different locations… so it’s important that law enforcement from different regions work together.”
Bastani and Ramchandani are working with data sets provided by TellFinder Alliance, and also benefit from their support and expertise. Ramchandani shares:
“TellFinder Alliance has a great mix of skills sets where their data science team completely understands everything we say when we talk about machine learning, and then they provide feedback based on the lessons they’ve learned trying to apply some of the techniques. We provide input on what we’re seeing so far, and some things we want to experiment with they haven’t yet experimented with. That exchange of information is great. They also have very deep subject matter expertise; the whole research project from the beginning flourished because of the conversations we were having… Speaking with Emily Wyatt, for example, and her deep background in the human trafficking space - a lot of that information was extremely useful for us as we 1) laid out the research project idea, and 2) now structure our analysis.”
Bastani and Ramchandani have a year-long collaboration agreement with TellFinder Alliance.