Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tackling human trafficking through technology

It's a sad fact that, even in our modern, advanced, world, human trafficking is still a major problem. Every day, hundreds of people around the world are kidnapped or even given by their families, and forced into sex work By some estimates, 'hundreds' is too low. Recent statistics seem to show that the number of girls, boys, and young women forced into the international sex trade may well number into the thousands each and every year.

In recent years, sex slave trafficking has gone high tech. Many of the biggest traffickers are now using the Internet to find new customers and widen their reach far beyond the small closed 'you have to know someone' club they used to operate in. But while the use of the Internet makes trafficking easier and more profitable than ever, it also provides us with a broad opportunity to address the problem using technology.

Brandon Merritt from UC Berkely has launched an ambitious new project called Project Milk Carton that seeks to bring two hot technologies - facial recognition and internet web crawl bots, to bear against these bad guys. The idea is simple: compile a database of pictures of trafficking victims, then crawl the web looking for other pictures of that person. When a hit is made, do deeper analysis and, finally, work with law enforcement to recover the person from the trafficker.

I'm excited about this project for a number of reasons. First, while facial recognition isn't perfect, it's good enough to potentially produce a quite viable tool in the arsenal against trafficking. Second, it automates the process of analyzing data and, in effect, puts dedicated slueths on the trail of the missing twenty-four hours a day. If this project is even marginally successful, the results could be incredible.

Right now, Brandon is looking for both funding and coding help. If you can provide either, or would like to find out other ways you can participate in the project, I encourage you to email him at