Following the Money Trail... To Catch the Bad Guys

July 7, 2017

Yeng Saanchi, PhD Candidate

Imagine a world devoid of human exploitation, a world free from the fear of being trapped under the yoke of slavery. Sounds like a perfectly splendid world, if you ask me! Alas, this is a world that remains elusive because there are people who refuse to accept that owning their fellow human being is the epitome of evil. Modern-day slavery, also known as human trafficking, involves the abuse of power by certain individuals or groups to coerce the victims and exploit them through the use of threats or force. It is usually characterized by the giving or receipt of payments or benefits in order to assume control over a person. Forms of modern-day slavery include sex trafficking, labor trafficking, domestic servitude, forced marriage, bonded labor and child labor.

Human trafficking ranks as the third most profitable crime in the world and generates about $32 billion a year. But there is hope! The illicit trade of humans is a problem that is acknowledged by many governments and organisations in the world, and the battle against it has been ongoing for decades now. Although there have been many attempts to curb human trafficking activities, many have come to the realization that these criminal acts cannot be disrupted by conventional policing methods. The inefficacy of conventional methods has given rise to what is referred to as “follow the money” techniques. These methods target illicit assets, such as the financial assets of criminal organisations. It is claimed that targeting illicit assets demonstrates that crime does not pay, disrupts criminal networks and markets, and acts as a deterrent through reduced returns. While the confiscation systems developed have been partly effective, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether these current methods are truly achieving the objective of curbing these crimes.

The purpose of the current human trafficking project being undertaken by Laber Labs is to map out connections between people based on personal and geographic information, as well as their financial transactions. This is to aid in devising a means of detecting with reasonable accuracy, which transactions appear suspicious and are more likely to be associated with criminal activities. The long-term goal of the project is to assist law enforcement to apprehend the criminals as well as stop these crimes before they are committed, if possible.

The dark web plays an important role in exploring this method of apprehending criminals involved in illegal activities, primarily human trafficking. The dark web is the content on the world-wide web which can only be accessed by specific software, configurations or authorisation. Though the dark web is deemed as a treasure trove of criminal activity, a study conducted by Terbium Labs, showed that about 48% of the activities that take place on the dark web are legal. Interesting, right? The dark web is actually patronised by a lot of people who wish for privacy or anonymity.

The task of “catching the bad guys” perpetrating these inhuman acts is no doubt a challenging one and hopefully the outcome of this project will provide an effective method for curbing this canker.

I will end this post with a quote by William Wilberforce: “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”

Yeng is a PhD Candidate whose research interests include predictive modeling and variable selection. We thought this posting was a great excuse to get to know a little more about her, so we we asked her a few questions!

  • What do you find most interesting/compelling about your research?

    What I find most compelling about my research is the potential of saving lives by helping to put a stop to modern-day slavery.

  • What do you see are the biggest or most pressing challenges in your research area?

    The most pressing challenge at the moment is building a statistical model for age prediction using body poses in order to help in distinguishing between underage and adult victims.

  • Give five tips for starting a successful doomsday cult! One tip should be about fostering the deviancy amplification spiral in your potential followers.

    • i) Run for student body president as a way of getting students on board. Could insert subtle messages about an imminent robot apocalypse in the numerous emails that the student president is allowed to send to students.
    • ii) Reach out to the fraternities and sororities as a way of garnering more support
    • iii) Put out a story online about a prominent figure in the academic community who is working on helping law enforcement to curtail human trafficking and yet has his own coffle of slaves in the guise of a lab, with proof and all(made-up or not). This should elicit moral outrage and help foster the deviancy amplification spiral somewhat, I think.
    • iv) Work on getting a couple of notable figures involved, probably someone from the academic community. For instance, convincing EBL that an apocalypse is imminent will be a step in convincing many. How to go about that, I’m not certain.
    • v) The least probable tactic will be to convince the most powerful man in the world that unlike global warming, a robot apocalypse is real and imminent.