By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
ST. LOUIS, MO (ANS — January 18, 2017) — Sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that forces children and adults to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.
Young victims are coerced into the sex trade through fraud, drugs, force, debt bondage and intimidation at an average age of 12 to 14. According to UNICEF*, 5.5 million children worldwide are trafficked each year.
Now, the social action organization Exchange Initiative is encouraging travelers to help fight sex trafficking during January, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, by uploading hotel room photos to the free TraffickCam mobile app. January 11 was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Photos uploaded with the TraffickCam app are anonymously added to a national database used by law enforcement and investigators to locate victims and their pimps.
“Everyone who travels on vacation or business can make a real difference in the fight sex trafficking by using TraffickCam to upload photos of their hotel and motel rooms,” said Molly Hackett, principal of Exchange Initiative.
TraffickCam was developed by Exchange Initiative and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. The free app is available for iPhone and iPad at the App Store (bit.ly/TraffickCamApp) and for Android devices at Google Play (bit.ly/TraffickCamAndroid).
More than 102,000 apps have been downloaded since TraffickCam was launched in the summer of 2016. Stories and posts about the app have generated more than 35 million Twitter impressions and have been shared countless times on Facebook. The public has uploaded nearly 100,000 photos to a database of 1.5 million publicly available hotel room photos preloaded by the developers. More than 150,000 hotels are now represented in the database.
TraffickCam captures room features such as carpeting patterns, furniture, accessories and views outside the windows, which can be matched by law enforcement against photos advertising sex trafficking victims posed in hotel rooms. TraffickCam does not store any personally identifying information other than the phone’s GPS location, and any images including people are rejected.
The public can learn additional ways to take action and support further development of the TraffickCam database at www.exchangeinitiative.com . Donations will be doubled through a $100,000 matching gift from the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
“Criminals take advantage of technology to advertise and coordinate illegal sex trafficking,” said Dr. Richard Pless, TraffickCam developer and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science.
“We’re using new technologies to fight sex trafficking with this app that allows everyone to contribute data and with new image analysis tools to help law enforcement use the images in investigations.”
Exchange Initiative provides resources, information and networking solutions to combat sex trafficking in the U.S. Exchange Initiative developed the TraffickCam app. TraffickCam allows any traveler with a smartphone to help fight sex trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel room to an enormous, constantly updated database of hotel room images. Federal, state and local law enforcement securely submit photos of trafficking victims posed in hotel rooms to TraffickCam to locate victims. What organizations are behind the TraffickCam app?
TraffickCam was developed by Exchange Initiative, a social action organization founded by Nix Conference & Meeting Management, and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. Nix leads the charge among meeting planners worldwide to help end sex trafficking in hotels.
Nix was approached by law enforcement to help identify hotel rooms seen in photos that advertise sex trafficking victims. The first time we helped law enforcement locate a trafficked child, we realized how valuable our travel experience could be in the fight against sex trafficking.
How did the idea for TraffickCam app come about?
That pivotal moment came when we could not identify a motel room. We connected the vice squad with our associates in that city, but it took three days to find the girl. That seemed way too long, given today’s technology.
Explain the technology behind TraffickCam.
Travelers take four photographs of their hotel room (the app provides tips) and upload them to a database. The app uses image analysis tools to convert the photos to a series of data points that can be matched to data points in online photos of victims.
How can TraffickCam curb sex trafficking?
TraffickCam will help law enforcement identify hotels where victims are being trafficked.
How has the app been received?
Excellent! More than 90,000 app have been downloads. The hotel database now includes 150,000 hotels and more than 1.6 million photos.
What should users know when taking photos of their hotel room?
Take two photos of the entire room from different locations, one photo of the bed from the foot of the bed, and one photo of the bathroom from the doorway. Please make sure there are no people in your photos.
What about my privacy?
TraffickCam does not store any personally identifying information other than the phone’s GPS location. Any images that include people are rejected from the database.
Is TraffickCam available on both Android and iOS (Apple)? What if I don’t have a smart phone?
Yes, the app is available on both Android and iOS (Apple) platforms. Mobile apps make it convenient to use the app but we also have a website www.traffickcam.com where people can upload photos from computers.
Why don’t hotels just upload photos of their rooms?
Many of the photos in the database were obtained from publicly available resources, such as hotel websites. The app is very valuable in adding photos of hotels and motels that are not available online. We’re also finding that photos uploaded via the app more closely resemble photos taken by traffickers, which makes them even more valuable to law enforcement.
What happens if a hotel is identified as a possible sex trafficking location?
Law enforcement investigating the case will determine the actions to be taken.
What stops traffickers from skewing the database with false information?
The TraffickCam app uses GPS verification to confirm the authenticity of the user’s location. This prevents attempts to manipulate the data.
What challenges did you face in making TraffickCam a reality?
Funding to develop the app and the law enforcement portal was the primary challenge, and financial support for the app continues to be a need. Thanks to a generous matching gift by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, every dollar given to Exchange Initiative is doubled, up to $100,000, to help eradicate sex trafficking.
What issues does TraffickCam need to overcome going forward?
Funding is needed to maintain and further develop the app and the law enforcement database. We’ve reached tens of millions of people via social media but we want to get the word out to even more travelers and law enforcement agencies.
Can you share success stories?
The response to TraffickCam and the issue of human trafficking is already a huge success story! We’ve talked with hundreds of law enforcement agencies and educated tens of millions of people through social media. We are beta testing the law enforcement portal and expect to make it more widely available by early next year to help with identification and arrests.
We have been very happy with TraffckCam’s high accuracy in identifying the correct hotel in the top 20 matches, according to early testing.
Does TraffickCam monitor the demographics of people who have downloaded the app?
No, we don’t collect any data other than GPS of the hotel room. We do know that people around the world are downloading the app and talking about it on social media.
Can TraffickCam users get involved in other ways?
We hope users will explore www.traffickcam.com and www.exchangeinitiative.com to learn more about the sex trafficking issue.
How will Exchange Initiative expand in the future?
We will continue to provide education, resources and networking to fight sex trafficking.
Will TraffickCam be available internationally?
The app has been downloaded by people across the globe and we encourage everyone to add photos to the database. We also have received interest from law enforcement internationally. Our focus now is on the United States but we hope to expand to other countries in the future.
What else have Nix Conference & Meeting Management and Exchange Initiative done to fight sex trafficking?
Nix presented the national conference “IGNITE: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking” in 2014, initiated and signed the first-ever Meeting Planners Code of Conduct with ECPAT-US.
The ongoing efforts include:
Refining the TraffickCam mobile app and law enforcement database to identify hotel room locations and track down victims.Providing resources and networking to fight sex trafficking.Educating and empowering individuals and groups to join in the fight against trafficking.Addressing the issue of sex trafficking at every hotel where we do business.
What else can hotels do?
Hotels can educate their employees to watch and report signs of sex trafficking. Many hotels have signed the ECPAT Code of Conduct http://www.thecode.org/who-have-signed/top-members/
How can people help in the fight against human trafficking?
Educate yourself and learn more about how to take action at www.exchangeinitiative.com.
Download the TraffickCam app on the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android) or use the desktop app at www.TraffickCam.com. For more information, visit www.exchangeinitiative.com, Facebook.com/TraffickCam, twitter.com/TraffickCam, Facebook.com/exchangeinitiative and twitter.com/TheEXInitiative or call Molly Hackett at (314) 645-1455.
Rachel Brown, email@example.com, (314) 961-9772; (314) 210-4419 (c)
Photo Captions: 1) Suggested Hotel Camera Views. 2) Exchange Initiative Logo. 3) TraffickCam Logo. 4) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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