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Harnessing ‘Big Data’ to expose human trafficking

DeEtte Gray

It’s hard to fathom that as late as 2012 the U.S. State Department estimated 27 million people around the world are trapped in a life of slavery.

Recent high-profile news stories have served as a painful reminder that even in the U.S. individuals are held against their will, subjected to forced labor, prostitution or other criminal activity. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, as many as 100,000 children in the U.S. may be victims of domestic human trafficking.

The FBI explains that escape is difficult because human trafficking victims are often “invisible.” In the U.S., for example, victims typically don’t speak English and are afraid to approach authorities out of fear of being deported. Further, they have no idea where they are or how to get help. 

Traffickers are increasingly using technology, including pre-paid cell phones and Web sites, to facilitate their nefarious operations and cover their tracks. This presents an additional, evolving challenge to law enforcement. 

Last year, President Obama called on tech companies, advocates and law enforcement to develop tools and solutions to help turn the tables on traffickers. Today, BAE Systems and other companies, such as Microsoft and Google, are exploring how their cutting-edge tools and solutions can address transnational threats like human trafficking. One of these solutions from BAE Systems is activity-based intelligence, or ABI. 

At its core, ABI is both a technology and a discipline that enables analysts to bring a variety of data streams together into a single environment, recognizes patterns of behavior, and detects anomalies in the data that warrant further examination. While many traditional intelligence disciplines focus on specific targets of interest, analysts using ABI focus on events, movements and transactions in a given area. 

To date, ABI has primarily been used by the military and the Intelligence Community as a tool to monitor the geospatial locations of insurgent and illicit networks and to identify their members, tactics, techniques and procedures. But, the true potential of ABI outside of the defense market is only beginning to be realized.   

ABI is a force multiplier for analysts. As a tool, ABI helps automate the collecting, organizing and aggregating of large data sets, freeing up analysts to focus their attention on time-sensitive matters, or hot leads. For example, analysts reviewing physical evidence in an ABI system may be simultaneously capturing cyber evidence that trafficking operations leave behind. Rather than focusing solely on evidence from past crimes, analysts could be collecting data about a suspected trafficking organization’s involvement online, its involvement in discussion forums, its use of virtual currency exchanges and its involvement in social networking platforms, all in real-time. The grouping of all this data in one central operating environment could accelerate the process of identifying trafficking perpetrators and recruitment tactics, while enhancing the analyst’s understanding of trafficking markets. This is a critical benefit to international law enforcement agencies with limited intelligence resources. 

Another benefit of ABI is that it allows analysts to monitor and archive intelligence geospatially. Analysts can monitor regions of interest where a known trafficking organization operates in an effort to identify suspicious patterns. In studying the patterns of behavior of a regional operation, analysts could quickly learn valuable information about the size of a network and its operations. Analysts could also review historic data to identify shifts in operational tactics. 

The BAE Systems Intelligence & Security sector’s Advanced Analytics Lab -- dedicated to developing new tradecraft in open source and social media analysis -- is already engaged in research to identify demographic profiles of suspected traffickers using open social media sites vs. hidden sites; variances in target victim profiles based on origin of contact, if discernible; similarities or disparities in language, including emerging terminology in each community; observable range of technical capabilities displayed by traffickers within each community; and anti-detection behaviors observed in each community. 

Geo-referencing data sources identified through this research, and combining that data with imagery and signals intelligence through advanced analytics tools, like ABI, may help law enforcement stitch together virtual-world behavior with real-world activity. 

Ridding the world of this scourge requires collaboration, legislation and innovation. With the right advanced analytic tools, we can help law enforcement agencies better understand traffickers’ behaviors, exploit vulnerabilities in their networks and most importantly liberate their victims.  

DeEtte Gray is President, Intelligence & Security, at BAE Systems. She can be reached at:

[email protected]



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