ST. LOUIS — Now that Americans will be traveling more for the summer, a Saint Louis University scientist is asking travelers to take pictures of their hotel rooms to combat sex trafficking.
Dr. Abby Stylianou is an assistant professor of computer science at SLU. She has developed an app called TraffickCam that travelers can use to take pictures of their hotel rooms so they can be matched up with images taken by sex traffickers. Some traffickers post photos of their victims posing in hotel rooms for online ads.
“In this hotel, you always see the same carpet. And in this other hotel, you always see the same lamp. And in this other hotel, you always see the same curtains. And you start to be able to glean these patterns so that an automated system can go in, and you have a new image come in. And you say, ‘Aha yeah. I see this curtain and this carpet. That’s how I know that it is this particular hotel,'” said Stylianou.
Nearly 800,000 adults and children are victims of sex trafficking around the world every year, and Stylianou says artificial intelligence can help rescue them.
“Let’s take these AI tools that are often used to generate ad revenue and let’s instead do something good and try to help people,’ said Stylianou.
So far, 250,000 people are using the app. They’ve collected got about 400,000 images from travelers. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Exchange Initiative, a group that combats human trafficking, are getting the images into the hands of investigators around the world.
“We’ve been told by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that they have successfully been able to use it in cases,” said Stylianou. “We don’t get huge amounts of information about individual cases sort of protecting the victims, and that’s not information that tends to get shared. But they have told us they’ve successfully been able to use it in multiple cases.”
Stylianou asks travelers to be very specific when taking pictures of their hotel room and focus on items like lamps and desks.
“What we’re finding in investigations is that often you can only see one object or two in the background of the image, and so we’re working on new AI technology to do an image search that focuses on particular objects,” said Stylianou. “We need help from the public to get pictures of those objects to figure out this lamp is in this hotel this bed in this hotel.”
The TraffickCam app is available for free for iPhones and Androids.