On December 28, President of the United States Barack Obama announced that January would be the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As part of this program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be developing next-gen search technologies. This new tech will help law enforcement authorities track down the online violators of the crimes.

In a recent Department of Defense news interview, Wade Shen, a program manager in DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, said the program, “Memex”, is designed to assist police and other authorities in online investigations against human traffickers.

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“Our goal is to understand the footprint of human trafficking in online spaces, whether that be the dark web or the open web,” Shen explained. “The term dark web is used to refer to the fact that crimes can be committed in those spaces because they’re anonymous and therefore, people can make use of [them] for nefarious activities.”

Shen and his team will focus on collecting data from the internet and make it accessible to search engines. According to him, they are looking for behavioral signals in online sex ads. This will help them determine whether the prostitutes on the sites are being trafficked.

Before Memex started in late 2014, Shen’s team was working with the district attorney of New York. They tried to find signals associated with trafficking in prostitution advertisements on popular sites. The signals included the phone numbers “used repeatedly by organizations that are selling multiple women online”, branding tattoos, or the text in the ads.

Shen’s team had been analyzing extremely large data sets computationally to reveal trends, associations, and patterns, relating to human behavior and interactions. According to the DARPA, extending the technology to understand images and networks of persons will allow them to apply it to detect rings of traffickers and behaviors associated with online trafficking. The researchers examined millions of ads just to find a small number that were associated with human trafficking.

The DARPA engaged other law enforcement authorities with Memex, including 26 agencies in the United Kingdom, the district attorney of San Francisco and many others.

He added that investigators for the district attorney of New York used Memex tools to find and prosecute criminals. The investigations resulted in an arrest and conviction in the program’s first year. According to the program manager, his team’s effort resulted in hundreds of arrests and convictions in the United States and abroad. As law enforcement agencies see the efficiency of their tool, “more and more people are signing up to use it.”

Shen said working with federal, local and state partners in the United States is flawless, however, it’s harder to work with agencies located abroad. The program manager said that they are in the process of working out deals with foreign law enforcement. If the cooperation is successful, the agencies will be able to use their own versions of the tools after the Memex project ends.

According to Shen, DARPA funded $67 million to the Memex project. In this case, DARPA uses the help of commercial agents, universities, and others in the development of the technology.

“They are experts in their fields — image analysis, text analysis or web crawling and so on — and we engage the best of that community to work on this problem. What they’ve essentially done is form coalitions to … build the tools [needed] to solve the problem, because no one of the entities that we call performers is able to do that on their own,” he said.