Human Trafficking – called a ‘modern form of slavery’ by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – remains one of the most critical humanitarian issues facing the world today; a problem exacerbated by the ongoing global refugee crisis.  The UNODC’s 2014 report on human trafficking notes that most victims are women or girls and the most common form of the crime is based in sexual exploitation – a serious issue that has inspired the creation of TraffickCam, an app asking travellers to upload photographs of their hotel rooms across the world. Developed social impact organization Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, TraffickCam aims to build a database of photographs in a bid to catch traffickers operating in the United States in the act.

Often, sex traffickers upload photos of their victims in hotel rooms to publicize their illicit services and by creating a robust, mapped database of photographs, TraffickCam hopes to help authorities across the world recognize the locations of the crimes by having a pool of photos to compare to. “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,” reads TraffickCam’s latest press release.

 

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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. The app does not store any personally identifying information other than the phone’s GPS location.  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,” says Dr. Pless. “We’re using new technologies to fight 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.”