By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
Hotels across the United States will have people coming and going all summer. Abby Stylianou, PhD, Saint Louis University’s assistant professor of computer science, is asking travelers to take advantage of their hotel stays by doing something a little extra. Not much. Just take some photos of your room. Different angles, the bathroom included. And upload them to a free mobile app she created called TraffickCam.
Human traffickers regularly post photographs of their victims posed in hotel rooms for online ads. So, when travelers anonymously share hotel room pictures to TraffickCam, matches can be made to images taken by human traffickers.
“Identifying where those pictures are taken is a big part of the investigation,” said Stylianou.
Stylianou led TraffickCam’s research and development. TraffickCam is a free mobile app that empowers travelers to anonymously photograph hotel rooms. Uploaded data is available to child sexual abuse and human trafficking analysts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Analysts who access the portal can upload and compare their photos against images in the database. They use the photos to find victims and as evidence to prosecute perpetrators.
Stylianou reminds travelers that by simply downloading the app and uploading your hotel room photos, you can play a role in saving lives. And just because the hotel is nice, doesn’t mean human trafficking is not happening there.
“Running the gamut from one-star hotels to five, in all sorts of fancy hotels around the world,” she explained.
According to the U.S. Department of State, there are nearly 28 million human trafficking victims worldwide at any given time. Human traffickers prey on adults and children of different backgrounds and nationalities. Traffickers exploit their victims for profit by compelling them to perform labor or engage in commercial sex.
“If you can prove that a victim was moved across state lines, they’re photographed in a hotel in Illinois and photographed in a hotel in Missouri, then that becomes a federal crime rather than a state crime. And with that, becomes increased power. So, you have increased investigative power and then you have more prosecutorial power,” said Stylianou.
Stylianou said the artificial intelligence developed for the app can help rescue victims.
“We’ve built up a huge database of hotel room images and then we use AI approaches to figure out, essentially from the patterns that we’ve seen in those pictures, where the victim photograph was taken,” she said. “We’ve really locked it down so that only a very small group of investigators have access to it. In particular, we work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
The expert analysts who access the portal can upload and compare the human trafficking photos against hotel room images in the database. Because hotel chains have their own room designs and décor, that doesn’t mean there are not differences from one location to the next. This is why it’s advised to upload several pictures.
“We need pictures from every hotel, in every room, from every different viewpoint and every different lighting condition. The more images we get the better our search is going to work. And the reason for that is that we match the victim images to the most similar images,” she explained. “Our traveler pictures from the TraffickCam app look more like the victim images.”