Cal Poly Students Use Technology to Fight Human Trafficking

University’s California Cybersecurity Institute Launches Trafficking Investigations Hub to Offer Training, Resources and Research

Cal Poly computer science major Zahnae Aquino demonstrates the virtual reality simulation she created of an illicit massage business to further the California Cybersecurity Institute’s effort to help disrupt human trafficking.
SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly senior Zahnae Aquino pulled a virtual-reality headset over her eyes and her office in the university’s California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) melted away. Clutching a pair of controllers, she moved through rooms in a virtual massage business, searching for clues to determine whether the business was operating legally or was one of an estimated 9,000 illicit massage businesses across the U.S., according to nonprofit organization Polaris.

Aquino, a computer science major, is no stranger to this virtual space — she spent weeks creating it to support the CCI’s effort to fight human trafficking. She is one of nearly a dozen Cal Poly students who spent the past six months working at the CCI on projects intended to help the fight to end human trafficking. Their projects were showcased at the CCI’s Anti-Human Trafficking Summit in January.

In time, Aquino hopes the VR simulation will be used to train nonprofits, landlords, law enforcement and others to spot signs of human trafficking and to build empathy toward those working in such circumstances.

“I’m a programmer and an activist,” Aquino said. “My motivation on this project is giving a voice to people who don’t have the means to speak for themselves. I’m hoping to share their stories to broaden people’s perspectives and support the paradigm shift of them being seen as victims, not criminals.”

At the summit, the CCI also announced the launch of a new venture: the Trafficking Investigations Hub, which will provide focused training and research for law enforcement, first responders, advocacy and educational groups, and cybersecurity professionals.  It will provide support and training to those operations and groups working to locate victims, prosecute suspects and decrease human trafficking in California.

“The Trafficking Investigation Hub’s mission is to disrupt all forms of trafficking,” said CCI Program Manager Martin Minnich. “Through a focused approach on human trafficking, the hub will use state-of-the-art technology and training to enhance the capabilities of law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, other government agencies and the private sector in this fight to end this global problem.”

Human trafficking generates more than $150 billion annually and is becoming the fastest growing crime worldwide, according to the California Attorney General’s Office. California has routinely been the state with the largest number of identified victims and open cases, with the amount increasing every year, according to Polaris

Since 2014, there have been 12 human trafficking-related convictions in San Luis Obispo County, according to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.

Cal Poly will partner with organizations, including the Global Emancipation Network, a nonprofit organization that uses cutting-edge data analytics to disrupt human trafficking operations and find victims. Several of the Cal Poly students coordinated with Global Emancipation Network on projects that will support that organization’s efforts and the CCI’s goals.

“We have some amazing and passionate students doing things that weren’t on our radar even five years ago in this fight against human trafficking,” said CCI Operations Coordinator Danielle Borrelli.

Third-year statistics majors Jonathan Shan and Steven Taruc collected data on the illicit massage industry — where human trafficking is rampant — to develop a model to identify which businesses may be engaging in trafficking. They worked on the project in partnership with advocacy groups and experts includingGlobal Emancipation NetworkAccentureSplunk, and Graphistry.

“Data science allows people to get access to data without having to painstakingly go through thousands of webpages,” Shan said.

Businesses were assigned a risk score based on data drawn from hundreds of police reports and keywords in online reviews. Of nearly 3,500 businesses with online reviews, about 465 were determined to be at high risk and 240 were at moderate risk for human trafficking.

Eventually, they hope the tool could be used to protect workers from exploitation.

“We’re working on projects that can have such a positive impact,” Shan added. “We’re doing something that can change the world.”

Another classmate, statistics major Josiah Lashley, helped to create a database of nearly all 55,000 schools in the U.K. and the uniforms worn by their students to aid law enforcement in more quickly identifying photos of children who are victims of a variety of child abuse situations, including trafficking, kidnapping, or sex abuse.

Global Emancipation Network Executive Director Sherrie Caltagirone will demonstrate the “uniform classifier system” to England’s education secretary later this month, and then to international partners, including Interpol, Europol, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, among others.

“I want us on the Central Coast to be the test bed for best practices, cutting-edge tools and technology so we can eliminate trafficking on the Central Coast and spread the knowledge about how to do it,” Caltagirone said. “I want to equip college students and the entire community to recognize the signs of trafficking and know what do to. And I want students to see that, no matter their educational program, they can do good all over the world.”

Cal Poly student Zahnae Aquino speaks about her project during the CCI’s Human Trafficking Summit on campus.
Cal Poly student Zahnae Aquino speaks about her project during the CCI’s Human Trafficking Summit on campus.

Cal Poly statistics majors, and Steven Taruc, left, and Jonathan Shan share details during the CCI’s Human Trafficking Summit about their project to collect data on the massage industry in Florida.
Cal Poly statistics majors, and Steven Taruc, left, and Jonathan Shan share details during the CCI’s Human Trafficking Summit about their project to collect data on the massage industry in Florida.

In photo at the top, Cal Poly computer science major Zahnae Aquino demonstrates the virtual reality simulation she created of an illicit massage business to further the California Cybersecurity Institute’s effort to help disrupt human trafficking.

Photos by Cal Poly university photographer Joe Johnston. Higher-resolution images available upon request.

Contact: Cynthia Lambert
805-756-5160; cmlamber@calpoly.edu

Jimmy Baker
805-756-2948; jbaker30@calpoly.edu

February 11, 2020

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