Tracking supply and demand in human trafficking (podcast part 1)

Tracking supply and demand in human trafficking (podcast part 1)

Tracking supply and demand in human trafficking (podcast part 1)

Listen to podcast here.

Three researchers from The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business are using their skills to combat human sex trafficking. They have formed a group called the STANDD initiative standing for Sex Trafficking Analytics for Network Detection and Disruption. The group collaborates with law enforcement at the local and national level to fight what has become an illegal online industry. One member of the team is Dr. Burcu Keskin. She is a professor of operations management and specializes in supply chain networks and the disruption of illicit supply chains. In fact, her work was recently recognized by the university through the prestigious Blackmon Moody award.

Dr. Keskin explained the support she received from local authorities in starting her research. “The West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force creates seminars, you know, for public to inform them. And I attended one of those seminars. At the same time, National Science Foundation started a call, they had a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, and they were calling for supply chain optimization, you know, AI, data scientists, computer scientists, anybody from any discipline, to essentially tackle disrupting the illicit operations.”

Dr. Keskin remembered speaking with the chief of police at the time. “He actually talked to me like for a couple of hours for all the problems that they’re having and my other colleagues here at University of Alabama, Nick Freeman, and Greg Bott, we established that STANDD initiative not too long after that. We started working on that and started collecting data because there’s so much data available, like so many ads…”

The ads Dr. Keskin is referring to are ads relating to sexual services. She mentions the work of her, and her colleagues often involves collecting about 100,000 daily online posts to review for possible human trafficking violations.

Inspector Jessica Wilson is with UAPD and the West Alabama Trafficking Task Force. “…Really, they just reached out to offer however, we can help we want to help…,” she said, “And we didn’t really know what that would look like at first and it’s really turned out to be a great thing. There are hundreds of ads for commercial sex posted in our city every single day. And that’s more than even we as a task force can keep up with but certainly without a taskforce we would be way behind. And so, you know, with every commercial sex ad, there is a potential that this is a victim of human trafficking. And we do our best to be proactive in in responding to those ads and, you know, meeting with these people and determining whether this might be a victim or not and that’s part of what the research with STANDD initiative has helped us to be able to do more efficiently.”

Another member of the STANDD initiative is Dr. Nicholas Freeman, an associate professor of operations management. He speaks on the project’s humble beginnings. “So, it was barbed wire and duct tape. There was no funding right?” he said. “So, we built the initial kind of, you know, scraping applications and the initial code on those old hammered down machines. We were able to get some seed funds after you know about a year that allowed us to purchase a workstation to where we could do this a little bit more effectively. And recently, as of this July, we’ve submitted many grants to various agencies, but we did get an award from the National Science Foundation, that’s going to be extremely helpful.”

Dr. Freeman explained the purpose of the STANDD initiative, “…we’re trying to identify the people that are that are being exploited against their will, and then put the information into the hands of law enforcement nonprofits so that they can you know…we’re data people, right? All we can do is help bring this information so that they can be a little bit more effective.”

The third member of the STANDD initiative, Dr. Greg Bott, is also an associate professor at Culverhouse, but brings in a different set of skills as his specialization is management information systems rather than management science. His areas of expertise include cybersecurity and digital forensics. He explains that a lot of this illegal activity is in plain sight. “The vast majority of buying and selling a commercial sex happens on the surface web.” he said. “Site A, B, and C are out there for you to go look at just on any browser from any location without any kind of, you know, hiding or protection or obfuscation. It’s just available.” This is where the data collection of the standard initiative comes in finding sites involved in this illegal activity. “Yeah, so what we do as we write code that will kind of automate your browser so if you were to get the data yourself like this as a normal person, you might bring up the website and highlight all the texts and copy it and then paste it. So, we have a programmatic way to do that. So, we write Python code using some libraries that will automatically load that page and grab the relevant data and download that. And we do that over and over and over again every day 24/7 across multiple sites,” Bott said, “We likely have the largest dataset of our kind in the world.”

Dr. Freeman mentions the prevalence of the problem. “The thing is, it’s everywhere and that’s been probably the most, you know, shocking thing to me is it’s everywhere you look…right?… everywhere… We’ve gone and we’ve worked with people all across the United States, right? But we do a lot here in Tuscaloosa and what people should realize is that you know, it is definitely going on right around you wherever you are, small town, Alabama, all the way up to you know, the larger cities.” One of the complexities of this issue is in the understanding of the problem itself. “It’s weird. You look at the media, you look at the movie depictions of things,” Dr. Freeman said, “and we kind of had this fanciful idea of what trafficking looks like. It’s like, you know, people getting kidnapped, put in cages, and shipped around, we tend to see things it’s a little bit more subtle than that, right?”

In part two, we will explore human sex trafficking further by looking at these subtleties and how reality differs from these movie depictions. Links to more information can be found on the STANDD initiative and some of the nonprofits they work with on our website. If you or someone you know is experiencing human trafficking or if you have information regarding this illegal activity, here are some resources:

  • West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force: (205) 248-4750
  • Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tipline: (866) 347-2423
  • National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888