Money Trail

Sex trafficking is a serious issue, and it's made all the more difficult to stop due to the challenging of identifying its victims and perpetrators. However, a new tool that combines artificial intelligence (AI) and bitcoin may help us to end this illegal practice.

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Developed by PhD Candidate Rebecca Portnoff and her team at the University of California, the tool uses machine learning to sift through thousands upon thousands of online sex ads in order to identify patterns that can help investigators.

The digital currency bitcoin is the most common form of payment used by sex traffickers on Backpage, a website largely associated with sex trafficking. In 2015, credit card companies began preventing people from using credit/debit cards on the site, forcing people to use bitcoin. The AI uses publicly available information through the cryptocurrency's blockchain to determine who the purchasers are.

Positive Results

According to the International Labour Organization, nearly 4.5 million people have been forced into sexual exploitation, either by individual people or companies. The newly developed tool can help investigators to look into sex trafficking so that they can intervene before things get worse for victims. Carrie Pemberton Ford from the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking explained to New Scientist that it could also help prosecute those suspected of human trafficking.

"We look at cost of the ad and the timestamp, then connect the ad to a specific person or group. This means the police then have a pretty good candidate for further investigation,” said Portnoff.

The tool's implementation has already produced results. During one month in which it was used, Portnoff and her team were able to accurately identify 90 percent of the 10,000 ads they looked into, all of which had the same author. One specific bitcoin wallet investigated was used for $150,000 worth of sex advertisements, potentially revealing ties to an massive exploitation operation.

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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