Organizers of the 23rd ACM Special Interest Group on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (SIGKDD) just wrapped up their five-day annual conference, which ended on August 17 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. One of the highest-profile presentations was a paper with co-authors from UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and New York University, in which they outlined automated approaches to detecting human traffickers based on analysis of their online classified sex advertisements.
At KDD 2017, first-author UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Rebecca S. Portnoff presented the paper, “Backpage and Bitcoin: Uncovering Human Trafficking,” which is partly based on her Ph.D. dissertation. Her co-authors include UC San Diego computer-science Ph.D. candidate Danny Yuxing Huang, who is getting ready to defend his doctoral dissertation on Bitcoin and “Using Crypto-Currencies to Track Cyber-Attacks, Speculative Investors and Human Traffickers.” Their co-authors include NYU professor Damon McCoy (a former postdoctoral researcher in the CSE department at UC San Diego) and his Ph.D. student Periwinkle Doerfler, as well as research scientist Sadia Afroz at the International Computer Science Institute.
The computer scientists argue that the sheer quantity of online classified sex advertising used by human traffickers “makes manual exploration and analysis unscalable,” especially with thousands of new ads posted daily. It’s also difficult to separate ads for independent sex workers from ads for a victim of sex trafficking. The paper notes that “almost no work has been done in building tools that can automatically process and classify these ads.” So the team focused on developing and demonstrating automatic techniques for clustering sex ads by owner (on the assumption that individual ads for a single sex worker would be less likely to be placed by a trafficker, whose ads more often offer the services of multiple sex workers).
Over a four-week period, the researchers carried out a study using a single sex-ad website, called Backpage, to demonstrate a proof of concept for automated approaches and how they can be used to find human traffickers. (After the research was done, Backpage discontinued its adult advertising section, though not the ads, which now appear in multiple sections of the website.)