Technology links human trafficking ads to Bitcoin accounts

David Heitz

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Several years ago, I used to get messages on Twitter from people pushing Bitcoin.

I had no idea what Bitcoin was.

Bitcoin is electronic currency. It has helped human traffickers escape arrest.

Until now. Federal authorities are making massive human trafficking busts nationwide, and many have been reported by mainstream news outlets online. They're just not making the evening news.

To develop a new tool to catch traffickers, researchers from New York University Tandon School of Engineering teamed up with computer scientists from University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Diego.

They devised the first automated systems to identify possible human trafficking ads and link them to Bitcoin, the primary way perpetrators pay for ads.

Human traffickers and other criminals use cryptocurrency for anonymity.

President Trump has vowed to end human trafficking

It makes you wonder how long the feds have been aggressively investigating human trafficking. I suspect the investigations have been going on since President Trump's election. He has pledged to end human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a worldwide human rights epidemic, with an estimated 4.5 million people forced into exploitation, according to the International Labor Organization.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated in 2016 that about 16 percent of endangered runaways reported to the group probably were human trafficking victims.

Traffickers feel empowered to advertise on the internet. Law enforcement has trouble catching them.

Ring leaders often use different telephone numbers and email addresses to avoid detection.

Algorithms can find needles in a haystack

The research team created two novel machine learning algorithms. The first is based on stylometry, or the analysis of an individual’s writing style to identify authorship.

“Stylometry can confirm authorship with high confidence, and in the case of online trafficking ads, allows researchers and police to identify cases in which separate advertisements for different individuals share a single author: a telltale sign of a trafficking ring,” the scientists reported.

In a test, the researchers easily identified a poster of a group of ads on Backpage, one of the most popular sites for online ads.

Backpage has since discontinued its adult advertising section. However, the authors of the paper say the ads remain elswewhere on the site.

The scientists matched timestamps from when posters paid ads with actual ads, which post instantly upon payment.

“All Bitcoin users maintain accounts, or 'wallets,' and tracing payment of ads that have the same author to a unique wallet is a potential method for identifying ownership of the ads, and thus the individuals or groups involved in human trafficking,” the researchers explained.

I have zero doubt many more trafficking busts are in the works. Powerful people including politicians, police, and Hollywood executives already have been arrested. I suspect there will be more high-profile arrests.

Authorities rescue 145 victims in Ohio trafficking bust

In Ohio, a huge bust led to the recovery of 45 children and more than 100 trafficking survivors.

From CBS 2 in Pittsburgh:

The operation, called “Autumn Hope” was a multi-agency raid spearheaded by the U.S. Marshals Service reports WBNS, it also included 50 law enforcement agencies.

During the operation, 169 arrests were also made by the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force.

Ohio Attorney General David Yost said this is the largest anti-human trafficking effort in state history.

“The success of Operation Autumn Hope is measured not only in the number of arrests but in the lives that were rescued from this evil,” Yost said in a press conference. “Every agency on this team looks for the day when no person is bought and sold in Ohio.”

A similar bust occured in Georgia during the summer. From the story:

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Marshals Service announced the end of a two-week operation in Georgia that resulted in the rescue of 26 children, the safe location of 13 children and the arrest of nine criminal associates.

If anything appears unusual with children in your neighborhood, or you know of a missing child, call the U.S. Marshals tip line at 1-866-492-6833.

Technology can identify who posts ads

“The technology we've built finds connections between ads,” said Rebecca Portnoff, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in computer science who developed the algorithm as part of her dissertation.

“Is the (perpetrator) behind that post for Backpage also behind this post in Craigslist? Is he the same man who keeps receiving Bitcoin for trafficked girls?

“Questions like these are answerable only through more sophisticated technological tools — exactly what we’ve built in this work — that link ads together using payment mechanisms and the language in the ads themselves,” Portnoff said.

The researchers analyzed 10,000 real ads. They had more than an 80 percent success rate on matching groups of ads to authors.

The issue of whether the ads involve human trafficking victims must be investigated and determined by police.

Without technology, trafficking hiding in plain site

"Trafficking of children hides in plain sight within the vast online escort environment. It’s difficult for investigators to sift through the mounds of data and figure out what is important and what is not when looking for a child," said Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn, a nonprofit organization working to prevent human trafficking.

The research will help police find children faster and get them into trauma-informed care sooner.

“We're grateful to academics and researchers who are willing to lend their time and talent to this issue to help find new solutions that move this work forward," Cordua said.

Bitcoin isn't the only player in the cryptocurrency industry helping crack down on traffickers.

Coinfirm has joined forces with the non-profit Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative “to battle human trafficking by leveraging corporate social responsibility directly through advocacy awareness, intelligence integration, technology advancement and strategic data collaboration." according to a statement.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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