AOL: New app created in St. Louis aims to track down victims of sex trafficking

AOL: New app created in St. Louis aims to track down victims of sex trafficking

By AOL.com

You may want to snap pictures of your hotel room when you’re traveling because it’s luxurious or you want to show off to your friends, but there’s a better reason to do so: it may save a child’s life.

The TraffickCam app — which is free and available for iPhone, iPad and Android — allows you to upload pictures of your hotel room, where they are then matched to a database used by law enforcement. This can help the police identify where trafficked children are.

“You just enter your hotel room, and your room number. You take four pictures, and you submit them to the website,” Washington University Researcher and TraffickCam developer Abby Stylianou explains.

“And then those become part of the pipeline that law enforcement can use to track down where the victims are being trafficked,” she said.

The idea for TraffickCam came several years ago when the police sought help from the non-profit Exchange Initiative, formed by the Nix Conference and Meeting Management to end sex trafficking. Police wanted to identify a hotel where children have been trafficked.

The police showed Nix staff a photo. “One of the girls in our office knew exactly what it was,” Nix Principal Molly Hackett said. Exchange Initiative then teamed up with Washington University researchers to make the app.

Photos of victims are all too common, and the internet has made trafficking easier for criminals.

“Right now there are pictures posted every day. Hundreds of pictures, in every city around the United States, posted online, that show victims of trafficking, in hotel rooms posed on beds,” Stylianou said.

Since its creation, TraffickCam has acquired over 1.5 million photos of hotels around the world.

Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh, the deputy commander of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, is hopeful that the app will make a difference.

He said, “I think it’s going to be crucial to help us identify not only where they’re at now, but where they’ve been at. Which is something we need — that’s helps with prosecution.”

AOL.COM © June 2016

St. Louis Post Dispatch: New app aims to track down victims of trafficking

St. Louis Post Dispatch: New app aims to track down victims of trafficking

by Nancy Cambria

The TraffickCam app allows users to upload photos of their hotel rooms, like the one at right. A computer program then compares the photos to images of possible sex trafficking victims in hotel rooms to figure out where the photos were taken.

New app helps locate sex trafficking in hotels
The TraffickCam app lets users upload a photo like this user-submitted picture to a database which uses an algorithm that matches the image to a picture provided by law enforcement in order to find sex trafficking locations.

The app is used throughout the United States. Photo courtesy of TraffickCam
New app helps locate sex trafficking in hotels

The TraffickCam app lets users upload a photo like this user-submitted picture to a database which uses an algorithm that matches the image to a picture provided by law enforcement in order to find sex trafficking locations. The app is used throughout the United States. Photo courtesy of TraffickCam

Do you want to help track down pimps and save young victims of sex trafficking?

Well, now there’s a free app for that.

It’s called TraffickCam (iOS) (Android), and it is targeted toward travelers who book hotel rooms. Its visionaries include three Maplewood conference planners and a 26-year-old computer programming sleuth from Washington University, whom they met by chance.

TraffickCam is intended to make the search for young trafficking victims strikingly faster for law enforcement. App users can snap photos of their hotel rooms before unpacking, then upload the photos to the app. The growing collection of photos feeds a national database that has a search tool enhanced by cutting-edge computer image analysis created by researchers at Washington U.

Likewise, law enforcement officers feed the database photos from escort advertisements that appear to be of minors taken in hotel rooms. Complex search algorithms then analyze the hotel decor to find a match. App photos containing rug patterns and textures, drapery designs, lampshades, wall art, bed linens and specific furniture provide thousands of data points for the computer to match with a specific hotel or chain.

New App helps locate sex trafficking in hotels
The TraffickCam app lets users upload a photo like this user-submitted picture to a database which uses an algorithm that matches the image to a picture provided by law enforcement in order to find sex trafficking locations. The app is used throughout the United States. Photo courtesy of TraffickCam

The app and technology could save detectives days and weeks of sorting photos and speed their response to a location of a pimp or a victim, said Molly Hackett, one of the three local women who came up with the idea of collecting hotel photos.

How effective is it? One of its inventors, Abby Stylianou, a Metro High School graduate with a passion for computer imaging analysis and social justice, said test trials are highly encouraging. About 85 percent of the time, the computer algorithm is able to deliver a hotel match in the first 20 photos it returns from the search.

If successful, the app has the potential to put a dent in the illicit sex trade that markets photos of minors on the internet through advertising sites such as Backpage.cοm. That site generates more than $37 million a year in revenue.

The FBI is also excited about the new technology.

“In this case, individual citizens who want to help stop sex trafficking but didn’t know how, now have a tangible way to contribute,” said William Woods, special agent in charge of the FBI’s St. Louis Division.

One social justice group, the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, is so hopeful about the app’s potential, it donated a $100,000 matching grant toward technology development.

Success ultimately hinges on how many people use the app to send photos to the database, said Hackett, a principal at Nix Conference and Meeting Management in Maplewood.

“There aren’t many opportunities for anybody on any given day to make a difference in sex trafficking, but with this app, you really can,” she said.

A bit of luck
For nearly a decade, Hackett and her co-workers Jane Quinn and Kimberley Ritter have been fighting sex trafficking of minors. As professionals and mothers who regularly do business with the hotel industry, the trio decided they had a moral responsibility to do something about sex trafficking in hotels.

New app helps locate sex trafficking in hotels
The TraffickCam app lets users upload a photo like this user-submitted picture to a database which uses an algorithm that matches the image to a picture provided by law enforcement in order to find sex trafficking locations. The app is used throughout the United States. Photo courtesy of TraffickCam

About 300,000 U.S. children are trafficked nationwide every year, according to UNICEF. Most victims are coerced into the illicit industry at ages 12 to 14. In the U.S., pimps frequently travel from city to city using hotels as a base of operation. St. Louis has been identified by the FBI as among the top 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. with a high level of sex trafficking.

About five years ago Hackett and her colleagues developed a professional code of conduct among conference planners regarding minors and sex trafficking. It was intended to pressure hotels they do business with to better train employees to identify and deal with potential sex trafficking.

They went on to found Exchange Initiative, a resource center on sex trafficking prevention that in 2014 hosted a national forum in St. Louis. That same year the group started crowdsourcing travelers for cellphone photos of hotel rooms for a website they wanted to develop for law enforcement.

Hackett and her colleagues knew they were going to need technical support and connections in the computer industry. They had neither.

That’s when they met Stylianou, a Washington University computer programming researcher in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Stylianou had read a 2013 report in the Post-Dispatch about local efforts to reopen the case of Baby Jane Doe, the unidentified 1983 victim of a grisly unsolved murder that had bothered police for decades.

Investigators had to locate the child’s unmarked grave at a local cemetery so they could exhume the body.

Stylianou got her lab to lend its computer image analysis technology to successfully locate the burial plot.

Because of that work, Stylianou won a seat in a local FBI Citizens Academy in 2014. One of the classes dealt with human trafficking and was conducted the same week the Post-Dispatch ran an article on Hackett and her colleagues’ efforts to collect hotel photos.

Stylianou said, “I’d like to meet that lady because I can help her.” It turned out a classmate sitting next to her knew Hackett. A meeting was set.

Photos wanted
Hackett said within minutes of meeting Stylianou and her mentor, Robert Pless, a professor of computer science and engineering, light bulbs went off.

“They were using all sorts of super, high-level coordinates of random photos taken outside and showing how they could find their original locations,” Hackett recalled. “They said they could probably do this with interiors. While they’re doing this, I’m touching my phone. And I asked them, can you make an app for us?”

An iPhone app has been available for about 10 months, but the group waited to complete an Android version before going public this week.

So far more than 1.5 million photos have been uploaded to the database from more than 145,000 hotels. Stylianou said they need significantly more. Most of the photos collected so far have been “scraped” by the WU computer lab from internet travel sites such as Expedia.com, she said.

“Those are not necessarily the rooms where the victims are being trafficked,” she said. “The reality is we believe we can do even better by getting pictures from the app that more accurately represent the hotels. So getting these pictures from travelers is hugely important.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch © June 2016

Travelers use TraffickCam app to fight sex trafficking by uploading hotel room photos to national database

ST. LOUIS, MO – Travelers can help in the fight against sex trafficking by using a new, free mobile app called TraffickCam to anonymously photograph hotel rooms and upload data to a national database used by law enforcement and investigators to locate victims and their pimps.

TraffickCam was developed by the social action organization Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University. The app is available for iPhone and iPad at the App Store (bit.ly/TraffickCamApp) and for Android devices at Google Play (bit.ly/TraffickCamAndroid).

Sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that forces children and adults to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. Most victims are recruited when they are just 12 to 14 years old, coerced through drugs, violence, debt bondage and intimidation. According to UNICEF, at least 300,000 American children and 1.2 million children worldwide are sex trafficked each year.

TraffickCam allows any traveler with a smartphone to help fight sex trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel room to an enormous, constantly updated database of hotel room images. Federal, state and local law enforcement securely submit photos of sex trafficking victims posed in hotel rooms to TraffickCam. Features such as patterns in the carpeting, furniture, room accessories and window views are matched against the database of traveler images to provide law enforcement with a list of potential hotels where the photo may have been taken. Early testing showed that the app is 85 percent accurate in identifying the correct hotel in the top 20 matches.

“Law enforcement is always looking for new and innovative ways to recover victims, locate suspects and investigate criminal activity,” said Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh, St. Louis County Police Department and Supervisor of the St. Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Human Trafficking Task Force.

“The app created by the Exchange Initiative will give law enforcement yet another technological tool to reach that goal in a quicker, more proficient manner when investigating cases involving human trafficking and child exploitation,” Kavanaugh said.

The TraffickCam database currently contains 1.5 million photos from more than 145,000 hotels in every major metropolitan area of the U.S., taken by early users of the TraffickCam smartphone app and from publicly available sources of hotel room images. Nix Conference & Meeting Management staff members have actively used the app over the past year, uploading data during their professional and personal travels.

TraffickCam does not store any personally identifying information other than the phone’s GPS location. Any images that include people are rejected from the database.

Exchange Initiative is a social action organization founded by Nix Conference & Meeting Management, which leads the charge among meeting planners worldwide to help end sex trafficking in hotels. Nix presented the national conference “IGNITE: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking” in 2014, initiated and signed the first-ever Meeting Planners Code of Conduct with ECPAT-USA, and addresses the trafficking issue with the management of every hotel where they do business.

“The first time we were able to help law enforcement identify a hotel where a trafficked child had been photographed, we realized that our travel experience was valuable in the fight against sex trafficking,” said Molly Hackett, principal of Exchange Initiative and Nix.

“Our pivotal moment for developing the app came when we couldn’t identify a motel room. We connected the vice squad with our associates in that city, but it took three days to find the girl. That seemed way too long, given today’s technology.”

Exchange Initiative contracted with Washington University in St. Louis to develop TraffickCam. The app developers, Dr. Robert Pless, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science, and research associate Abby Stylianou, work in the university’s Media and Machines Lab researching new ways to use images collected by smartphones and webcams.

“Criminals take advantage of technology to advertise and coordinate illegal sex trafficking,” said Pless. “We’re using new technologies to fight sex trafficking, with this app that allows everyone to contribute data and with new image analysis tools to help law enforcement use the images in investigations.”

Exchange Initiative encourages everyone who travels – such as vacationers, business travelers, truck drivers, flight attendants and sports teams – to capture photos of hotel and motel rooms using the free TraffickCam app. Donations to support further development of the database can be made at www.c5h.86b.myftpupload.com. Donations will be doubled through a $100,000 matching grant challenge from the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

ABOUT EXCHANGE INITIATIVE and NIX CONFERENCE & MEETING MANAGEMENT
Exchange Initiative provides resources, information and networking solutions to combat sex trafficking in the U.S. For more information, call Molly Hackett at (314) 645-1455 or visit www.ExchangeInitiative.com, www.facebook.com/exchangeinitiative, and twitter.com/TheEXInitiative. Nix Conference & Meeting Management manages meetings, conferences and trade shows in the U.S. and internationally. Nix leads the charge among meeting planners to end sex trafficking in hotels. For more information, call (314) 645-1455 or visit www.nixassoc.com.

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Media Contact
Mary Schanuel
mschanuel@synergy-pr.com 
314.961.9772

Fox 2 St. Louis: Snapping a picture of your hotel room could help stop human trafficking

Fox 2 St. Louis: Snapping a picture of your hotel room could help stop human trafficking

Snapping a picture inside your hotel room could help protect children across the globe.

The TraffickCam app enables travelers to submit pictures of hotel rooms around the world. The images are matched against a national database used by police.

“You just enter your hotel room, and your room number. You take four pictures, and you submit them to the website,” Washington University Researcher and TraffickCam developer Abby Stylianou said. “And then those become part of the pipeline that law enforcement can use to track down where the victims are being trafficked.”

Stylianou was among the speakers at a Human Trafficking Town Hall at Maritz Tuesday.

“Right now there are pictures posted every day. Hundreds of pictures, in every city around the United States, posted online, that show victims of trafficking, in hotel rooms posed on beds,” she said.

Hotel photos submitted by travelers will allow police to querry the database to determine where the pictures of victims were taken.

TraffickCam now has more than 1.5 million images of hotels across the world, thanks to support from the public.

The idea for the app is merging of ideas between researchers at Washington University and the Exchange Initiative, a non-profit formed by Nix Conference and Meeting Management. A few years ago, police sought the help of Nix staff to identify the specific hotel where a victim was trafficked.

“It was a photo that they had from the internet,” Nix Principal Molly Hackett said. “One of the girls in our office knew exactly what it was.”

The Exchange Initiative created the app, which Hackett said is widely used by her staff. But use of the app isn’t limited to her line of work.

“It’s great that everyday citizens can do everyday things by taking a picture help stop sex trafficking,” Hackett added.

The internet has made it easier for criminals to engage in sex trafficking and child exploitation, Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh with St. Louis County Police said. Kavanaugh is the deputy commander of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

He said detectives are noticing an increase in younger victims.

“The average age, when we talk to our girls that we deal with, most of them have started at 13, 14 years old. And most of them have been sexually abused as children,” he said.

He said he is optimistic the new technological tool will make a difference.

“I think it’s going to be crucial to help us identify not only where they’re at now, but where they’ve been at. Which is something we need – that’s helps with prosecution.”

TraffickCam is free and available for iPhone, iPads, and Android devices.

Fox2 News © June 2016

$100,000 matching gift supports TraffickCam app to fight human sex trafficking

$100,000 matching gift supports TraffickCam app to fight human sex trafficking

ST. LOUIS, MO – The Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a community of Catholic women religious and associates, has donated a $100,000 matching gift to support the ongoing development of TraffickCam, the free anti-trafficking smartphone app that has taken social media, the traveling public and the tech world by storm. Donations will support the ongoing development of the TraffickCam mobile app and law enforcement database.

The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph will double every dollar donated up to $100,000, with the ultimate goal of raising $200,000. Tax deductible donations can be made at ExchangeInitiative.com, the social action organization that developed the app. Follow TraffickCam at Facebook.com/TraffickCam and twitter.com/TraffickCam; follow Exchange Initiative at Facebook.com/ExchangeInitiative and twitter.com/TheEXInitiative.

TraffickCam empowers travelers to help in the fight against sex trafficking by taking photos of their hotel rooms and anonymously uploading them to a national database, which will be used by law enforcement and investigators to locate victims and their pimps.

In a week and a half, the TraffickCam app has logged nearly 70,000 downloads on the App Store (bit.ly/TraffickCamApp) and Google Play (bit.ly/TraffickCamAndroid). Thousands of media outlets, online publications and TV stations have written about the unique TraffickCam app, developed by the social action organization Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University.

The story has generated more than 27 million Twitter impressions and has been shared countless times on Facebook. As a result, more than 1,500 hotel room photos are being added each day to a database of more than 1.56 million photos, including photos from hundreds of hotels not previously represented.

Sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that forces children and adults to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The average age that victims enter the sex trade is 12 to 14 years old , coerced through drugs, violence, debt bondage and intimidation. According to UNICEF, at least 300,000 American children and 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked each year .

Exchange Initiative is a social action organization founded by Nix Conference & Meeting Management, which leads the charge among meeting planners worldwide to help end sex trafficking in hotels. Nix addresses the trafficking issue with the management of every hotel where they do business and presented the national conference “IGNITE: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking” in 2014. Nix initiated and signed the first-ever Meeting Planners Code of Conduct with ECPAT-USA in January, 2012.

Nix Conference & Meeting Management was honored this week by ECPAT-USA as a Top Member of The Code, for the second year in a row. ECPAT-USA named just 19 companies in the U.S. as Top Members “for their exceptional work to integrate child protection practices into their businesses in 2015.”

ABOUT EXCHANGE INITIATIVE
Exchange Initiative provides resources, information and networking solutions to combat sex trafficking in the U.S. Download the app on the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android) or use the desktop app at www.TraffickCam.com. For more information, visit TraffickCam.com, Facebook.com/TraffickCam, twitter.com/TraffickCam, ExchangeInitiative.com,facebook.com/exchangeinitiative and twitter.com/TheEXInitiative or call Molly Hackett at (314) 645-1455.

CONGREGATION OF THE SISTERS OF ST. JOSEPH
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph is a community of nearly 500 vowed women religious dedicated to the love of God and neighbor, committed to sharing life together in community, and missioned to be a unifying presence wherever we live and minister. For more information, visit www.csjoseph.org.

# # #

Media Contact
Mary Schanuel
mschanuel@synergy-pr.com
314.961.9772

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