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Human trafficking: Using analytics to address a faceless crime

Dale Peet

During my entire 23-year career as a police officer, I never dealt specifically with an individual who admitted they were a victim of human trafficking. 

That doesn’t mean that human trafficking isn’t a problem, or that it doesn’t happen in the United States every day. On the contrary, the 2011 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the U.S. each year. 

While this is a major issue in our country and abroad, it is very difficult to get individuals to acknowledge that they were victimized by human trafficking. There are many resources available to educate officers on how to spot possible human trafficking situations. But, in many cases, the victims are not only in fear for their own lives, but for their loved ones as well, because the criminals exploiting them threaten to kill their families if they tell anyone about what is happening to them.

While hundreds of thousands of children are sexually exploited every year, victims of human trafficking can also be forced into slave labor, or forced to conduct other illegal activities. And, it is not just children that are impacted -- the majority of victims are between the ages of 18 and 24. 

What is more, people can be brought into the U.S. legally, willingly following those who promised them a new life in America. Then, after arriving, they are forced into bondage, which makes it harder for agencies to track the crime. 

All these variables make it very challenging to arrest the people responsible for human trafficking. In fact, according to the 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, for every 6,369 people trafficked in 2011, only one person was convicted. 

Analytics can play an important role in cracking down on human trafficking offenders. However, it is important to remember that the level of effectiveness of analytics tools depends on the volume and quality of available data. Currently, the amount of data collected on human smuggling is limited, and the quality of that data decreases the value of what data is collected. Combined, this limited volume and poor quality make is challenging to exploit the power of analytics. 

The goal of advanced analytics should be to leverage existing data to understand past patterns and trends and understand potential future patterns in an effort to be more proactive and less reactive. By improving data quality and quantity, law enforcement could more effectively comb through data to identify human trafficking trends. Are there patterns that indicate an increase or decrease in trafficking activity at certain times of the year? Are there changing trends in how they enter the country, whether it is an illegal border crossing, by ship or undocumented aircraft? Or, is the use of commercial flights for apparently legitimate reasons increasing? Is there a new “hot spot” for border crossings? 

By reviewing patterns and behaviors of traffickers, law enforcement could determine where they should increase the focus of their efforts. Agencies could profile behaviors of both criminals and victims to better understand the most vulnerable areas of the trafficking process to target enforcement and investigation. 

Another on-going challenge is the lack of data-sharing between agencies. While progress is being made, opportunities to use technology to find connections between conspirators, victims and suspects are being missed. For instance, after identifying potential suspects, agencies could use social network analysis (SNA) to look at a large number of databases, cross-reference the available information and identify connections between suspects and victims to find the criminal organizations responsible. 

Specifically, SNA software can find instances where, perhaps, hundreds of people are applying for a driver’s license and are all using the same street address for their residence. In other cases, there may be dozens of requests for public assistance originating from the same location -- traffickers are not only exploiting their victims, but also defrauding the government. By making these connections with SNA software, a local agency can investigate and take action. Unfortunately, it is not common for DMV, social services and law enforcement to share data. 

The Internet has become a critical tool for human traffickers. Although research on its impact has yet to reveal definitive data, it is believed that one method of recruiting victims is performed through Internet advertisements, social media and e-commerce sites. For instance, an ad seeking women ages 18-27 for modeling jobs could be a way for human traffickers to find victims. Certainly, the Websites that allow users to post requests for sexual activity and to find escorts can be fronts for prostitution. 

These sites are often one node in a network of organized criminals operating right under our noses in what appears to be a legal business. After following appropriate due process, running social network analysis on the site’s owners could reveal associations with known criminals, bolstering the suspicions of law enforcement and helping build a case. 

Once agents determine a site is a front for criminality, agents can track the site’s origin and determine how and in what numbers individuals are being recruited. Agents can know whether the enterprise meets the criteria of a human trafficking case. 

Law enforcement needs to train officers on what to look for, and to ask the right questions of possible victims of human trafficking. Secondly, they need to have the proper technology to consistently collect and store the information, and then use analytical tools to make sense of it. Finally, they need technology to analyze publicly available Internet data to begin identifying and targeting the criminal organizations that are perpetrating these crimes against innocent men, women and children. 

There are many resources to assist law enforcement with information and guidance as well as training concerning human trafficking. One such resource is http://www.dhs.gov/anti-human-trafficking-resources-law-enforcement, which was put in place by the Department of Homeland Security. A recent article in the FBINAA National Academy Associates (FBINAA) titled Human Trafficking: What You Can Do, written by James Brown, the Executive Director of the International Police Training Institute (IPTI), also indicates that there is a movement by the FBINAA to develop a global fusion center focused on human trafficking. This is a wonderful idea and will benefit law enforcement worldwide in the battle against such a heinous crime. 

Human trafficking is a faceless crime and doesn’t get the attention that it should. This mindset has to change, so that we can gather more effective data. Intelligence is the key to identifying the organizations, and analytics can be used to help bring these criminals to justice. 

Lieutenant Dale Peet, a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest fusion center for homeland security, now serves as Senior Industry Consultant at SAS. He can be reached at:

[email protected]



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