Local officials researching app designed to fight human trafficking with hotel photos

Posted by: Zach Myers  | Tuesday, June 28, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind - Officials with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police say they are researching a new app that is designed to fight human sex trafficking.

The app, called “TraffickCam” is meant to give law enforcement officials a large, searchable database of pictures showing specific hotel rooms across the nation.  Users of the free app are encouraged to take photos of their hotel room while traveling, then upload the photos with hotel and room information through the app.  The goal, according to the app’s developers, is to accumulate millions of pictures that police can compare to photos taken of sex trafficking victims in hotel rooms.

TraffickCam already has roughly 1.5 million photos in its database.  Developers say about 10,000 of the pictures were uploaded by new users since the app went live and public about a week ago.

Human sex trafficking continues to be a major concern for public safety officials across the nation, including Indianapolis.  As the Circle City increasingly becomes a host and destination city for major events, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says criminals follow the large crowds, hoping to sell young girls and boys for sex.

“These are organized crime rings that make a lot of money,” Zoeller said.  “It’s the second largest industry for the organized crime.”

Zoeller’s office has recently been working to train hotel managers and employees on spotting the signs of human trafficking.  Those include hotel guest seeking to rent rooms with cash, and requesting many keys to the room.  Zoeller said those suspects are often older men, accompanied by young girls.

“A young girl who might lie about her age,” he said.  “Often they’ll be very submissive, not look up, with an older man.  Sometimes they’ll even have some type of special jewelry, a tattoo, those are like branding.”

Zoeller said the young girls and boys are often given drugs to get them addicted.  They may appear dazed, and unaware of what city they are in.

Many young victims of sex trafficking are photographed for advertisements, or other purposes.  And many of those photos are taken in hotel rooms.

Washington University Researcher and “TraffickCam” developer Abby Stylianou says a comprehensive database of hotel rooms, with room number information, could help point sex crimes investigators track down those who victimize children.

“If we can more quickly and more efficiently get law enforcement the answer that this (photo) was taken in a Marriott, they then can take that as a piece of their investigation and move forward with the other clues that they may have discovered as part of their investigation,” Stylianou said.

Stylianou says she and her team recognize that many hotel rooms look alike.  She says photo recognition software can detect small differences.

“There are things that are uniquely identifying,” Stylianou said.  “There could be the scratch on the wall or the stain on the carpet that is particularly identifying to that hotel.”

Officials with IMPD and the Attorney General’s office said they can see potential benefits to such a nationwide database of photos.  Both agencies say they are still researching the potential benefits of the new app.

Stylianou says the searchable database is currently only available for police in Saint Louis.  But she and her team hope to make the searchable database available to law enforcement across the nation by the end of the year.  The development of the app has been funded by private donations, Stylianou said.

TraffickCam is currently available for Apple and Android devices.