U.S. agents rescue sex slaves through data fusion

Michael Dwyer/AP file photo

Software that connects phone calls, money and old cases leads ICE to victims of human trafficking.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is freeing sex slaves partly through software that identifies their geographic locations by synching financial transactions, phone records and other discordant data, ICE officials said on Wednesday.

Typically, datamining incenses civil liberties advocates, but sifting through mounds of personal information is helping U.S. law enforcement and human rights activists to convict participants in the $32 billion human trafficking trade.

“It’s actually leading to us identifying individuals who may be potential victims,” said Angie Salazar, an ICE section chief who investigates human smuggling and trafficking. By looking for trends among old case files and new information, and then “through the special agents’ work -- going out and finding those individuals, we’ve been finding that they have been victims of trafficking.”

Salazar spoke at a symposium to address immigration-related crime that gathered technology companies; senior federal officials; and actress Mira Sorvino, the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to combat human trafficking. The discussion coincidentally followed a call by the White House on Tuesday to legalize the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents, partly through squelching border crime and easing entry for workers.

Better rules would help ensure “people who come to this country do not come here on false hopes” and instead come legally, ICE Director John Morton said.

He described an operation this year that uncovered an underworld of sexual exploitation where criminals had lured young women from Mexico and Central America to the United States with promises of jobs and a better life, and then forced them into prostitution. The traffickers traded them like cars. A woman would spend a week with a particular trafficker in Georgia, work that town and travel through the trade circuit from handler to handler at a pay rate of $30 dollars for 30 customers per day. “We’re dealing with an entrenched problem and something that deals with the very best and the worst of human nature,” Morton said.

Data cruncher Palantir, a startup that assists many U.S. intelligence agencies, helps conduct investigations for ICE, contracting documents indicate. At the symposium, company analysts demonstrated their technology through a fictionalized crime-mapping exercise. The software is intended to help federal agents corroborate a victim’s story by fusing case folders, tips and, sometimes, subpoenaed phone records.  

In September 2011, ICE awarded Palantir a contract, without considering other vendor proposals, because the agency determined that the firm’s technology could flag individuals and organizations other marketplace technologies could not. “Copious amounts of data from disparate sources was ingested and analyzed within days whereas before these same actions would take months,” agency officials wrote in a justification for the award.

Sorvino, who played a U.S. immigration agent in the 2005 Lifetime miniseries “Human Trafficking,” argued that the international community sometimes re-victimizes sex slaves and forced laborers by the way it prosecutes cases. “More harm is done post-discovery to those emerging from the trauma of trafficking. There is a very real conflation occurring across the world of the crime done and its victims. Instead of survivors being treated as crime victims they are often treated as perpetrators even though the UN and federal laws denote that those who have been trafficked are not responsible for crimes in which their traffickers have been convicted nor in which they had been compelled to be involved by their traffickers,” Sorvino said.

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