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There are more than 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide, according to International Labour Organization estimates. In the United States, some trafficking victims are often hidden in plain sight, forced into sexual exploitation and held captive in establishments disguised as legitimate massage businesses. There are around 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IMB) operating across the country, complete with websites, customer reviews, licenses and tax records. Despite efforts to shut down individual IMBs, they often reopen under different names, suggesting a deeper connection linking establishments, which was not always evident from the data.
Polaris aims to dismantle these trafficking networks. As a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking, Polaris works directly with victims, engages systems to disrupt trafficking, hosts tip and crisis hotlines and offers support.
Polaris hypothesized that the resilience of the illegal massage businesses—the way they are able to open up in a new location after closing in another—indicates they are part of well-organized criminal networks; they were not simply “mom and pop” shops.
But without proof from the existing data—or strategies to visualize complex networks of IMBs—law enforcement agencies would continue to lose the fight against human trafficking.
To test the theory, Polaris tackled the human trafficking problem in a small city, manually identifying 35 illicit massage businesses and revealing how they were all connected. It was a difficult and labor-intensive process that relied heavily on cost-prohibitive tools. The answer and approach was right at their fingertips, but it wasn’t scalable—law enforcement, government, and prosecutors could not accommodate the manual labor required to handle and understand the data and connections between the information that could help shut down the illicit activities permanently.
“We’ve seen a real commitment and drive from Booz Allen to see this through.”
- Jennifer Kimball, Polaris Project
With a passion for investing in social good, Booz Allen offered to help Polaris. Together, we explored a number of problem-solving techniques to identify new ways to model the data Polaris used to map human trafficking networks. Challenged with the task of mapping networks in cities as large as 18 million people, Polaris needed a tool that would be flexible and scalable enough to address the needs of law enforcement, service providers and policymakers.
Together, Booz Allen and Polaris worked to better automate the mapping process, take on bigger cities containing hundreds—even thousands—of massage businesses, and train the model for wider circulation. “We started the proof of concept by identifying 35 [businesses] and then went to 900. It was a huge leap,” says Jennifer Kimball of Polaris.
That leap required more than just a new tool from Booz Allen. "We listened to Polaris and went through the data they suggested. Then we pushed further, thinking through new and different ways to model the data in a meaningful way. We are doing much more than just putting data into a tool,” adds Booz Allen’s Lauren Neal.
The partnership resulted in a more developed and dynamic mapping system that easily adapts to new data inputs and doesn’t require the map to be rebuilt every time information is updated or changed. "The visualization is also much more accessible,” points out Neal, who notes that “more people will want to use [the tool] because the slick front end provides an intuitive and dynamic visualization of a human trafficking network.”
Several states have adopted the mapping tool for use among law enforcement agencies and are doing enterprise-level investigations for human trafficking based off the tools and training that Polaris was able to provide.
The mapping tool tracks organized criminal networks in some of the largest cities in the U.S. and has enabled a better understanding of recruitment tactics. Polaris continues to scale the process of getting cities, law enforcement, and policy makers to take on the full task of investigation, using the mapping tool to educate and inform approaches for addressing human trafficking associated with illicit massage businesses.
As a partner, Booz Allen is turning its attention to how Polaris addresses other critical issues, including bilingual recruitment and prevention strategies that will allow them to get ahead of the illegal businesses, counteract their messages, and get help for those who make contact.
Together, Booz Allen and Polaris are disrupting criminal networks and using technology to fight for the freedom—and safety—of trafficking victims around the globe.