One of the serious challenges faced by law enforcement when fighting sex trafficking is the sheer magnitude of the problem. Simply put, there are too many traffickers, too many victims, and not enough resources, human or otherwise, to address the issue. Help may be on the way, however, from a startup company known as XIX.
Offering what it calls “next generation image intelligence,” XIX has been busy developing artificial intelligence software that can assist law enforcement in spotting signs contained in online ads and websites that indicate sex trafficking is going on.
For example, there are many indications in photos featured in online advertisements that a girl or young woman has been forced into sex services – if one knows what to look for. These include the more obvious ones, such as tattoos branding the victim as some pimp’s “property,” depicting images like crowns (traffickers frequently identify themselves as “kings”), and images of cash being flaunted. Physical indications of physical abuse, such as bruising, are also common.
However, there are less obvious signs – i.e., the victim being posed in degrading, submissive positions such as being on all fours. Kara Smith is an analyst at DeliverFund, an organization of former law enforcement, military and government agents who assist local police departments to track down and arrest traffickers. She says that a woman who engages in sex services of her own volition would not pose or present herself in such a degrading manner. A voluntary sex worker “…is going to sell herself as a hot commodity,” she says. “She’s going to sell herself with a little bit more class, and she’s going to be very picky [about her clients].”
Police officers are aware of this and can usually pick up on these clues when browsing online sex ads – but to do it manually is laborious and time-consuming. However, XIX software is able to scrape and sift through approximately 240,000 web pages per hour (which is about how quickly new sex ads are posted), analyzing them for markers – allowing police and others to work faster and more efficiently.
When DeliverFund got started in 2014, its three staff members managed to gather enough online evidence to nail four traffickers over a three-year period. When they started working with AI technology in 2018, they were able to increase their staffing to 30 – and were able to assist police in the apprehension of 19 traffickers, rescuing 17 victims in the process. With the assistance of XIX, they were also able to help the FBI and the Department of Justice in their takedown of the infamous website Backpage.com, which had become the “Craigslist” of the illicit sex trade.
That takedown of Backpage was the subject of a story published in Vice, as well as a short documentary that caught the attention of XIX founder and CEO Emil Mikhailov. He contacted DeliverFund’s executive director and founder, former Special Ops and CIA agent Nic McKinley, offering his new company’s services free of charge.
During the first eight months of 2019, using XIX technology, DeliverFund has been able to provide information to police that has resulted in the arrests of 25 traffickers and 64 “clients” of their underage sex slaves – and over 50 of those victims have been freed from their exploiters.
The growing use of AI technology for identification purposes has been controversial and of serious concern to many, especially civil liberties activists. Many of those concerns are justified. However, the partnership between DeliverFund and XIX is an excellent example of how such powerful technologies can be used for the betterment of society and the protection of its most vulnerable members.