New App Helps Combat Human Trafficking in Hotels

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The next time you snap pics on vacation, consider stopping to take a picture of the hotel room you’re crashing in: It could save a human trafficking victim.

A new app, TraffickCam, is compiling a database of hotel room photos to detect patterns in carpeting, furniture, room accessories and window views to catch traffickers using hotels as their venue. A 2015 report from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center shows that hotels/motels had the second highest number of cases for sex trafficking, behind commercial brothels, making up 7.4 percent of all cases.

Hotels and motels are an attractive option for sex traffickers because they can pay for the rooms in cash and leave whenever they please, often changing locations on a nightly basis without notice. Traffickers sometimes upload pictures of their victims and use them as promotion, knowing the chances that authorities trace it back to the location of the picture are slim.

But now, with Washington University in St. Louis researchers developing an app to compile millions of hotel room photos, they aim to dramatically slow down sex trafficking in hotels across America.

Human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing crime, and the United States largely echoes that statistic. In 2015 alone, 5,544 human trafficking cases were reported. In 2016, there have been 1,654 reported cases thus far, according to the NHTRC.

Worldwide, the estimated number of cases ranges from the U.S. Department of State’s 44,758 victims in 2013 to the International Labor Organization’s 2012 estimation of 20.9 million victims. Whether the actual number of victims and cases is higher, lower or somewhere in between, TraffickCam developers want to see that number drop.

The year-old app has already caught fire, with a database of around 1.5 million photos from more than 145,000 American hotels. The early testing shows the app successfully identifies the correct hotel 85 percent of the time. That’s an impressive feat considering a 2012 American Hotel and Lodging Association report concluded that the U.S. is home to more than 4.8 million guestrooms.

“Criminals take advantage of technology to advertise and coordinate illegal sex trafficking,” said app developer and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Robert Pless. “We’re using new technologies to fight trafficking, with this app that allows everyone to contribute data and with new image analysis tools to help law enforcement use the images in investigations.”

Photo by Elizabeth Greene/Flickr

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Grant Whittington

Grant Whittington is a rising junior journalism and government and politics double major at the University of Maryland: College Park. Living so close to the nation's capital, Whittington is an unfortunate D.C. sports fan who's passionate about politics and writing. He's worked for local county newspapers and has never seen Shawshank Redemption.

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