Help end sex trafficking with TraffickCam app

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Help end sex trafficking with TraffickCam app

Data from Unicef revealed that at least 1.2 million children worldwide are sex trafficked each year. Filepic

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The next time you check into your hotel room, you could very well help put an end to sex trafficking, using just your smartphone. That’s the idea behind the TraffickCam mobile app.

Developed by Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University, the app allows users to anonymously upload photos of hotel rooms they stay in while travelling.

The Missouri-based Exchange Initiative was created by Nix Conference & Meeting Management to empower individuals and organisations with real resources to help end sex trafficking.

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

Nix Conference & Meeting Management – which leads the charge among meeting planners worldwide to help end sex trafficking in hotels – has been identified as a top member by the internationally-recognised The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (The Code) for its work in integrating child protection practices into their business.

The Code is an industry-driven responsible tourism initiative with a mission to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry in order to prevent the sexual exploitation of children.

TraffickCam hopes to put an end to sex trafficking by bringing together technology and crowdsourcing. Filepic

Despicable trade

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.

They are often coerced through drugs, violence, debt bondage and intimidation. Data from Unicef reveals that at least 300,000 American children and 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked for sex each year.

The basis behind the TraffickCam stems from a simple, albeit unsettling, trait of the despicable trade.

Traffickers regularly post photographs of their victims in hotel rooms for “advertisements”.


Summary
  • The TraffickCam app allows users to anonymously upload photos of the hotel rooms they stay in.
  • Photos are uploaded into a database of hotel room images to curb sex trafficking.
  • Sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that forces children and adults to engage in commercial sex acts.
  • TraffickCam users are required to take four photographs of their hotel room and upload via the app.
  • Features of the rooms are matched against the database of images to aid investigations.

The TraffickCam app, with its user-friendly interface, makes it simple for hotel guests to upload the photos. Photo: The Star/Kevin Tan

The TraffickCam app, with its user-friendly interface, makes it simple for hotel guests to upload the photos. Photo: The Star/Kevin Tan

With the TraffickCam initiative, a database of hotel room images is created. From that, investigators are able to search compare photos and determine locations.

Travellers, according to Hackett, are required to take four photographs of their hotel room and upload them via the app.

“The app uses image analysis tools to convert the photos to a series of data points that can be matched up with data points in photos of victims,” she offers in an email.

Features such as patterns in the carpeting, furniture, room accessories and window views are matched against traveller’s images to provide law enforcement with a list of potential hotels where the photo may have been taken.

“We recommend taking two pictures of the entire room from different locations, one picture of the bed from the foot of the bed, and one picture of the bathroom from the doorway,” notes Hackett. It’s also important that no person is in the photos.

While TraffickCam has been operating since 2015, the app – which is available on both iOS and Android platforms – was only introduced in June this year.

“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 the city, but it took three days to find the girl. That seemed too long, given today’s technology,” Hackett muses.

The mobile initiative couldn’t have come at a better time, says St Louis County Police Department Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh in a news release.

Exchange Initiative and Nix principal Molly Hackett says the public needs to educate itself about sex trafficking. Photo: TraffickCam

Exchange Initiative and Nix principal Molly Hackett says the public needs to educate itself about sex trafficking. Photo: TraffickCam

“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,” says Kavanaugh, who is also the St Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Human Trafficking Task Force supervisor.

To date, data from early testing collected by Exchange Initiative shows that the app is 85% accurate in identifying the correct hotel in the top 20 matches. More than 83,000 apps have been downloaded since the launch late June.

Extending the reach

At this point in time, Exchange Initiative is only working with law enforcement in the United States. However, the organisation may expand TraffickCam’s reach in the future to work with law enforcement around the globe.

To that end, the app supports submissions around the globe and the database includes international hotels as well.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Association of Hotels president Sam Cheah welcomes the initiative. However, he says proper regulations must be placed by local authorities to ensure that TraffickCam’s operations run smoothly.

“Of course, we should look at the initiative through a broader perspective. Sex trafficking will ultimately mar the industry. If we can curb the trade, it will do the legitimate hotel industry a mountain of good,” he offers in a phone interview.

On its part, Hackett says Nix Conference & Meeting Management addresses sex trafficking at every hotel where they do business. Many hotels have signed The Code.

“Many photos in the database were obtained from publicly available resources such as hotel websites,” Hackett adds.

Photo: Filepic, for illustration purposes only

Photo: Filepic, for illustration purposes only

The immediate challenge she says, boils down to funding. That aside, Hackett believes they are on the right track with the TraffickCam initiative.

“The response to the app and the issue of human trafficking is already a huge success story! We are beta testing the law enforcement portal and expect to make it more widely available by early next year to help with identification and arrests,” she offers.

TraffickCam’s expansion in the future will include expanding education, resources, as well as networking to fight sex trafficking.

How can the public help? Hackett says: “Educate yourself.”


TraffickCam is available for free on App Store and Google Play Store.

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