Computer modeling developed by one University of Alabama (UA) research team to combat sex trafficking has led to more than 100 arrests in west Alabama over the last year.

The team began working with local, state and national law enforcement in May 2019. They were able to offer them something that current "off-the-shelf" software could not: tools to filter networks based on geography and predict future sex-trafficking activity. 

The modeling, developed through the Institute of Data and Analytics at UA's Culverhouse College of Business, collects data from online sex ads based on text and image content. This helps law enforcement locate potential human trafficking and arrest suspects. 

According to the university, the modeling has identified dozens of sex trafficking victims and assisted law enforcement in over 100 arrests since February 2021. At least 40 of these arrests have been in Tuscaloosa alone. 

A study published in the INFORMS Journal on Applied Analytics in October highlights the research team's efforts.

"We maintain a secure web portal that summarizes recent activity on popular sites that target a location within its jurisdiction," said professor and Reese Phifer Fellow Dr. Burcu Keskin, one of the study's authors. "Once we identify a subset of suspect networks, we use the details provided in the portal to more closely investigate movement patterns, identify prominent sites that are being used by the associated individuals and identify key phrases, images and phone numbers that are being used."

Marillyn Hewson endowed professor in Cyber Security Dr. Gregory Bott and Marillyn Hewson faculty fellow Dr. Nickolas Freeman were also listed as authors of the study. Freeman was the study's lead author.

Bott said that the research team also helps law enforcement target the demand side of sex trafficking operations, which involves posting fake ads to solicit potential human traffickers. 

"Based on our analysis, we have seen significant increases in average call volume from approximately 40 calls per day without our assistance to more than 106 calls per day in a recent operation," Bott said. "Higher call volumes from suspects translate to more arrests and more effective demand reduction."

According to the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force (AHTTF), there are 27 million individuals that are currently being trafficked around the world. Half of these individuals are believed to be children. Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise, next to the illegal drug trade, estimated to bring in as much as $150 billion in profits a year.  

Alabama's Interstate 20, which runs from Birmingham and Atlanta, was previously named the "Sex Trafficking Superhighway." Last year, AHTTF estimated there were 6,000 human trafficking victims per day in Alabama alone.

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