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Investigators Use New Tool To Comb Deep Web For Human Traffickers


Now to deep, dark, uncharted corners of the Internet where investigators are trying to stop human trafficking. It's time for All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: You may have heard of the deep web and the dark web. They sound insidious, but they actually describe the majority of the Internet. Think of the deep web as sites that are hard for Google to index because they're either changing all the time or they require interaction. The dark web refers to sites that are designed to be inaccessible to ordinary browsers. In the deep and dark webs, there are ads for erotic services from sex workers who are victims of trafficking, of exploitation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - DARPA - has developed an Internet search tool to help bust human traffickers.

DAN KAUFMAN: So is this your first time at DARPA?

SIEGEL: I have never been to DARPA before.

KAUFMAN: Well, welcome.

SIEGEL: To see it, we went to the shiny new offices of DARPA in Arlington, Va.

KAUFMAN: You know, I'm Dan Kaufman. I'm the director of the Information Innovation Office.

SIEGEL: Well, tell me what you got here.

KAUFMAN: So this is what people do today. So people use search. You get a lead. You type something in. You get a whole long list, right? The blue list of all sorts of things and you clink on the first link...

SIEGEL: I sat with Kaufman in front of a huge flat screen as he typed on a keyboard. And to start with, Kaufman and his colleagues explained the limits of a typical Internet search engine for law enforcement trying to find clues on the web.

KAUFMAN: And maybe that's not what you were looking for so you go back. You then click on the next link and maybe that's not what you want. Going back and forth is what everybody does. But when you think about the scale of it, how are you ever going to get to the big things, the networks?

SIEGEL: You first search - your initial search - was for an email address. And from there we saw a display of various erotic-sounding website titles.


SIEGEL: And you click on them and you see ads and phone numbers, and you copy and paste the phone numbers and search them.

KAUFMAN: Yeah, that's right. Right, and if you and I were trying to do it that's what we would do. So let's see if - we're going to now show you sort of the same search but done with Memex.

SIEGEL: Memex - that's the search engine that DARPA designed. Kaufman punches in that same search that he did on Google, a search for an email address.

KAUFMAN: We want to move from search to analysis. I might want to say, well, what is common among all of these ads? We're going to ask to show us things that, out of all these websites, whether we looked at them or not, that they have in common. And all of a sudden what you'll see - you see this one pink dot up there. And you can see the five lines going to it, so all of them shared one phone number.

SIEGEL: So you mean in ads for massage or erotic services, this was somewhere...

KAUFMAN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Repeating.

KAUFMAN: So we find this phone number. So now what you're going to see here is the person that was associated with the phone number. This is every single website and every single phone number that that guy is connected to. So we're starting to draw the map of what looks like a trafficking ring.

SIEGEL: Starting with that single email address, that single clue, using Memex Dan Kaufman has found a name and then a whole series of additional phone numbers linked through advertisements. Perhaps there's one underlying group behind this long list of ads for sexual services. And as Kaufman demonstrates, the ads can be mapped. They're on sites all over the globe.

KAUFMAN: We can also place these things geographically. Some of the ads are in California. Some are in Joplin, Mo., and we're seeing some in Southeast Asia.

SIEGEL: All of this information comes up instantly. Memex performs what's known as domain specific search. It's just paying attention to the sex sites, and it's finding connections between them without spending ages clicking back and forth.

KAUFMAN: And we can do even more. So what you're seeing at the bottom here, these are the ads pulled out, but they have pictures. So one question I might ask is, gee, is it the same girl in different ads?

SIEGEL: Well, can you actually match pictures?

KAUFMAN: We can.

SIEGEL: The images of women leaning seductively into the camera are blurred, Dan Kaufman says to preserve investigators' sanity, but the computer doesn't have any trouble spotting even the tiniest details.

KAUFMAN: Some of the pictures are in blue, so that says every single picture we believe is the same person. We can also tell you if it's the same camera. So either A - I'm seeing a woman being moved from place to place as trafficking, or I'm seeing the same people used over and over again. And again, I'm starting to see connections, so I can see this actually looks like a large, complex network.

SIEGEL: But you're not just finding that it's the very same picture. You're finding that it is a picture of the same or a very similar looking person.

KAUFMAN: That's right, we do both. So obviously, the easy one...

SIEGEL: Is the same picture.

KAUFMAN: Same picture.

SIEGEL: But you go beyond that.

KAUFMAN: We go beyond that.

SIEGEL: Dan Kaufman's colleague Wade Shen was standing nearby helping with the demonstration.

WADE SHEN: We can also find out things like, for instance, are these two pictures taken in the same hotel room? Whether or not the lighting is similar, whether or not the room environments are similar, whether or not the cameras are similar and so one, so it's not just the individual them self.

KAUFMAN: It then gives him a clue. It says would you like to find similar pictures? So then he can click on the button and it will then search through the exact same database and here's all...

SIEGEL: All the same picture...

KAUFMAN: All the same picture.

SIEGEL: ...Of the same woman on different sites with different phone numbers.

KAUFMAN: So now you're starting to see the power of it. So if you were just searching for one phone number you would never have found this.

SIEGEL: What I understand from this is - she's the trademark is what she is of some operation.

KAUFMAN: That's right.

SIEGEL: Who this person is might be quite irrelevant.

SHEN: It's a signature of a ring.

SIEGEL: Signature of a ring, though the first impression you would have is that this woman is in Las Vegas.

KAUFMAN: That's right.

SIEGEL: Not necessarily at all.

KAUFMAN: That's exactly right. And now you can ask really interesting analyst questions. How many other websites have used the same camera? Can I look at it over time? Can I see the map? And we're just empowering the cop. The police know these questions. They know how to do this, but they don't have tools to do it, so they're tracking it by onesies and it's hard. And we're trying to make their lives a little bit better.

SIEGEL: That's Dan Kaufman. He has now left DARPA to work for Google. We also heard from Wade Shen, program manager at DARPA's Information Innovation Office. Well, is Memex in fact making things better for law enforcement? In New York City, a human trafficking unit has been putting it to work.

CYRUS VANCE: Memex is a Google search on steroids.

SIEGEL: That's Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.

VANCE: Memex is a tool that can help prosecutors build cases and present cases, but it's often not in and of itself the solution to a case.

SIEGEL: Vance's office has used Memex to make a case in court. He says in one case, it bolstered the testimony of a witness who had left prostitution by confirming that a picture of the woman online was an old one. And Cyrus Vance says the ability to search otherwise hidden parts of the Internet is critical to law enforcement.

VANCE: The usefulness of the dark web to those who are involved in crime is it is not easily accessed and it really requires some special expertise to get in there and find the evidence that's hidden amongst its, you know, enormous amount of worldwide data.

SIEGEL: Are you now engaged in a digital arms race with, say, human traffickers or sex traffickers? That is, you've been very public about the fact that you can find things on the dark web. Does it mean that they will find a deeper, darker web, a way of communicating that would escape your notice this way?

VANCE: There's no question that it is a continually changing environment and we need all the help we can get technologically and otherwise to stay on pace with the criminals.

SIEGEL: That's Cyrus Vance, Jr., a Manhattan district attorney. His office tells us that Memex - DARPA's dark web search engine - has played a role in generating at least 20 active sex trafficking investigations and in six open indictments. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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