Human Trafficking and The Dark Web

DARPA Please Help!

Everyone has heard stories and read news articles about human trafficking that occurs around the world. It is unbelievable to most of us how such a thing can happen, but according to Homeland Security Investigations, a Department of Homeland Security agency responsible for human trafficking enforcement, there are millions of men, women and children worldwide who are victims of human trafficking. The United Nations has estimated human trafficking profit is $150 billion a year. A January 31, 2017 report by the Polaris project noted human trafficking hotline cases jumped by 35% in 2016. Polaris also reported that most survivors of human trafficking were recruited for sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Polaris demonstrated that human trafficking is a continuing problem affecting a large number of innocent people. Other reports have shown the Dark Web has helped to push this horrible crime deeper into secrecy.

The Dark Web is a portion of the Deep Web used by people intentionally trying to hide their identities. Anonymity is possible in the Dark Web by using special software that allows users and websites to communicate without exposing their true Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. The Onion Router, or Tor, is free software that allows individuals to access and communicate in the Dark Web using virtual tunnels instead of direct connections. Tor uses thousands of volunteer operated servers around the world to bounce between so true locations cannot be identified. Although the Deep Web is not intrinsically a bad technology, studies have shown that as much as 57% of all Deep Web content involves illegal activity, such as human trafficking.

The Internet, and especially the Dark Web, have made human trafficking easier to propagate and conceal. Internet advertisements are used to entice potential trafficking victims and solicit those victims for sex trafficking. Illicit forums discussing sex trafficking and services are hidden in the Dark Web. Because sites are not indexed it is very difficult for law enforcement to identify the illegal behavior hidden within the Dark Web.

DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been working on a multi-year project called the Memex program since 2014 to help identify human trafficking on the Internet. The premise of the Memex program is to identify content on the surface and Dark Web indicative of human trafficking. In order to accomplish the Memex program’s premise of locating targeted information, DARPA is building capacity to search the Internet using advanced web crawler technology. Web crawler technology consists of a computer program that automatically and systematically searches web pages for certain words or content. Conducting searches in the Dark Web is especially difficult because websites are not indexed like they are on the surface web. DARPA has been able to overcome this problem through development of Dark Web crawler technology assisted by artificial intelligence.

The Memex program has proven to be effective at assisting law enforcement authorities with conducting human trafficking investigations. Memex has been responsible for gathering evidence for various prosecutions of human trafficking crimes, including support of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. During just 6 months in 2016, the District Attorney’s office used Memex to screen 4,752 potential human trafficking cases. Memex has become a powerful tool to help fight the horrible crime of human trafficking.

So, the Memex program has proven to be effective, but does disruptive technology, such as the Memex program, have a place in combating human trafficking in a President Trump administration? It is perhaps too early to tell, but let’s assess current decisions by President Trump to see where he might stand.

President Trump’s focus on combatting illegal immigration may certainly have a positive net effect of making international human trafficking more difficult to the United States. If entry into the United States is made more difficult, it would stand to reason that illegal entry of persons being trafficked might also lessen. What is concerning about that prospect is that isolationism might reduce human trafficking into the United States, but also might prevent the United States from becoming engaged in a worldwide human trafficking problem.

Relative to whether President Trump will support DARPA’s mission and large budget to create innovative and disruptive technology is difficult to determine so early into his administration. President Trump appears to support the Department of Defense mission, which DARPA is a part of, but may find it tempting to move money to build tanks, ships and guns over disruptive technology. One thing is certain, human trafficking is such a horrific crime affecting so many innocent people, the United States must lead in the battle to end it. Innovative technologies, such as DARPA’s Memex program, must continue if we are to win this battle for innocent victims.