Federal and other law enforcement agencies have ramped up their fight against child sex trafficking thanks to a powerful new data analytics program based on a prototype developed by CCICADA researchers.
The software program analyzes millions of bits of data from Internet ads, social media and other sources, enabling law enforcement agencies across the country to quickly “see” traffickers and their victims in ways they could not before.
CCICADA is a university-based research consortium that uses advanced mathematics, big data analytics, and computer modeling to help solve homeland security problems.
“The tool we have now is accessible to all law enforcement groups,” Michael A. Osborne, chief of a federal law enforcement program called Violent Crimes Against Children, told students, professors and security professionals at CCICADA’s 7th Annual Research Retreat, held recently at Rutgers University.
Osborne was one of four panelists on the first day of the retreat who recounted how CCICADA’s research expertise, tools and methodologies have helped their agencies to better protect the safety and security of the American people.
Data Analytics Explosion
The other panelists were David H. Boyd, Operations Analysis Division, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area; Edward Bruce, Director, Intelligence Unit, NJ TRANSIT Police Department; and Michael A. Tobia, Program Officer and Subject Matter Expert with the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. CCICADA Assistant Director Dennis Egan moderated the panel.
Osborne and other homeland security officials at CCICADA’s Research Retreat said the value of data analytics to their agencies’ missions has exploded over the past six years, and that CCICADA’s data-analytics tools have helped them tremendously.
Osborne and the other panelists said the value of data analytics to their agencies’ missions has exploded over the past six years. Law enforcement agencies previously used (and many still do) a centuries-old technology to find and catch most criminals: the human eye.
For example, said Osborne, agents used to laboriously read hundreds of sex-for-hire Internet ads to find patterns and generate leads. Today, data from hundreds of sources is fed in multiple streams to centralized servers. The data arrives in the form of photos, videos, law enforcement records, news stories and, increasingly, Internet ads and conversations. Law enforcement agencies at every level contribute data. Facial recognition software is built into the program. As the data streams in, fast computers connect the dots in seconds and spit out results.
Knowing that new computer-based technologies could help it do a better job catching sex traffickers, Osborne’s unit, a division of the FBI, took its first steps in this direction in 2010. President Obama gave them support, declaring in a 2012 speech that efforts to combat human trafficking were a high priority. Along the way, Osborne met Dr. Eduard Hovy after hearing him speak in Los Angeles.
‘Got to Talk to this Guy’
“I said to myself, I’ve got to talk to this guy,” Osborne recalled.
At the time, Hovy was leading an interdisciplinary faculty team at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) that was heading up CCICADA’s effort to combat child sex trafficking through big data extraction and analysis. His team developed a data-analytics prototype for Osborne’s unit. This prototype was then customized to build a system that could integrated with other government systems. Hovy is a faculty member of Carnegie Mellon University, where he continues his data-analytics research.
Another panelist, the US Coast Guard’s David Boyd, said CCICADA has also helped his agency become less predictable in it enforcement of the nation’s maritime laws and “reduce redundancies” so the Coast Guard can make better use of its scarce manpower and equipment resources.
Boyd said CCICADA’s data analytics expertise helped the Coast Guard reduce the number of rescue stations in the Great Lakes, sharpen its fisheries enforcement program, and do a far more efficient job of sharing limited equipment resources (boats, helicopters and planes) between stations. In March 2015, CCICADA co- organized a national Maritime Cyber Security Symposium, which addressed one of the Coast Guard’s highest priorities: preventing maritime cyber-attacks, which can immobilize port operations and remotely hijack ships at sea. The Center is now working with the USCG on a data-validation project.
NJ Transit Police
NJ Transit’s Edward Bruce said he is working with CCICADA researchers to ramp up his agency’s police intelligence program by using computer-based data collection and analytics tools (similar to those used by the federal Violent Crimes Against Children program).
Right now, NJ Transit police collect intelligence data from a variety of disconnected sources that are arranged like so many “stove pipes.” Connecting those sources of information, centralizing the flow of data, and “plugging them into a very smart analytics system” are key to the future success of his agency’s intelligence system, Bruce said.
Panelist Michael Tobia explored the work he has done with CCICADA in crowd management. The DHS program officer explained the difference between “crowd control,” which is how one responds to a riot or similar crisis, and “crowd management,” which involves the application of data analytics and computer modeling to simulate and anticipate crowd movements. This enables venue operators to plan for an emergency, such as the need to quickly evacuate fans at a sports stadium.
Tobia said a stadium the size of MetLife in the New Jersey Meadowlands, with 82,500 seats, “is inherently dangerous even without any bad guys coming to the stadium.”
He said he worked with CCICADA to develop a FEMA-approved training manual for first responders and a Best Practices in Anti-Terrorism Security for Sporting and Entertainment Venues Resource Guide, which the DHS has published on its website to guide owners and operators in developing and strengthening the anti-terrorism readiness of their large venues.
CCICADA and its research partners continue to investigate different ways in which data-analysis tools can be used make the nation’s law enforcement efforts more efficient and effective.