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One Memex-funded program alone, called DIG, can index 5,000 web pages per hour and turn the content into a searchable database. "To get enough training data, DIG uses [the crowdsourcing marketplace] Amazon Mechanical Turk to recruit people to read escort ads and highlight key information like eye color, hair color, and the working name of people featured in escort ads," reported PBS. As of 2017, it was being used by more than 200 law enforcement agencies.
DOD's $67 Million Cache of Escort Ads
Between 2014 and 2017, DARPA spent $67 million on the adult-ad indexing program. Is it worth it?
Certainly not from an anti-trafficking standpoint. A 2018 paper from NASA JPL researchers said that in the past year, "DIG, along with other trafficking detection tools from Memex, has led to at least three trafficking prosecutions."
The results are indicative of the flawed focus of so-called anti-trafficking campaigns. How many victimized people could have been helped with $67 million going to emergency shelters and other services that address material needs?
Instead, the federal government is paying the nation's top scientific minds to pretend it's possible to build an algorithm for sniffing out evildoers if we can just input the right code words, images, emojis, and clues. Those minds then work on things like figuring out how to use bots to scrape content from password-protected websites and forums, building up "the ability to rapidly and automatically monitor [online] gun transactions" and use "object recognition and computer vision" to tell if guns are automatic or semi-automatic, or creating "an approach to identify users across website forums using indirect features derived from metadata on each of the websites."
In other words, the tools developed using escort ads aren't going to stay in the realm of saving trafficking victims or even uncovering consensual but illegal advertisements for sex.
Meanwhile, DHS is deputizing private sector snitches. Hotels, airlines, and others are subjecting staff to training sessions that are pointless at best, destructive at worst. And nobody is worrying about the conditions facing hospitality staff employees, who have historically faced high levels of labor trafficking and sexual abuse themselves. At the same time, this approach makes hotels less amenable to guests, especially single women, by treating them with unwarranted suspicion.
As Marriott gets kudos for "donating" its training course to other hotels, and as ECPAT and its allies push for laws mandating a wasteful corporate branding exercise in even more states, remember: Hiding within this goodwill-garnering campaign are a straight-to-ICE pipeline, crackdowns on consenting adults, the creation of advanced new spying tools, and nonprofit cronyism, all of which inevitably comes at the expense of activities that could actually benefit sex-crime victims. This isn't a recipe for good hospitality or good work against exploitation and abuse.
*CORRECTION: This piece initially stated incorrectly that the Department of Homeland Security is a part of the Department of Justice. It is a separate cabinet agency.
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