Department of Defense Builds Search Engine to Trace Sex Trafficking


Prosecutors are using a new search engine designed by the Department of Defense’s research agency, DARPA, to trace human traffickers.

The search engine, called Memex, scrapes prostitution ads from dark websites overlooked by commercial search engines like Google or Bing, then saves them for later use.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced this week that it is using Memex for every single one of its human trafficking cases. District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. explained how the technology is used in investigations:

“We cannot rely on traumatized victims alone to testify in these complex cases. When sex traffickers create online ads for their victims’ sexual services, they leave a digital footprint that leads us to their criminal activity. Because those ads are frequently removed or intentionally hidden on the ‘dark web,’ it puts them beyond the reach of typical search engines, and therefore, beyond the reach of law enforcement. With technology like Memex, we are better able to serve trafficking victims and build strong cases against their traffickers.”

DARPA project manager and Memex inventor Chris White told 60 Minutes the search engine aims to distinguish trafficked women from sex workers who choose to work in prostitution: Memex looks for identifying information, such as a phone number, that is used in ads across the country. If a phone number shows up in an ad in New York, then in L.A., then in Miami, White says that suggests trafficking. He told 60 Minutes how he interprets the location data associated with the ads:

We know that, at the least, the people advertising those girls? They’re the ones moving around. And we think sometimes the girls move with them and sometimes not.

Once the ads are saved, prosecutors use them to build cases against suspected human traffickers. The Manhattan DA cites one case in which ads collected by Memex were used to confirm a trafficking victim’s testimony.

Although Memex is currently focused on human trafficking, White suggests that may not always be the case. “By inventing better methods for interacting with and sharing information, we want to improve search for everybody and individualize access to information,” he said.

Image via Shutterstock.

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