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The first comprehensive research on sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is being released today by researchers in Arizona, where the Super Bowl will be held next year.
They analyzed and placed online sex ads, identifying nearly 2,000 potential sex trafficking victims, including 84 children in New Jersey and Arizona, during the 10 days before and after this year’s Super Bowl.
The information was gathered, sometimes by former Army intelligence officers, using the same type of Internet-sniffing technology used to track militants in Afghanistan. The defense contractor that helped with the research says sex trafficking is a lot like terrorism — a problem that’s hard to see.
Lead researcher Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who is director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss her findings.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and our next story may not be appropriate for children. It's about the first comprehensive research on sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. It's being released today by researchers in Arizona, site of next year's Super Bowl, researchers who combed through online sex ads, placed decoy ads and say they identified nearly 2,000 potential sex trafficking victims, including 84 children.
The information was gathered sometimes by former Army intelligence officers using the same type of Internet-sniffing technology used to track militants in Afghanistan. The defense contractor that helped with the research says sex trafficking is a lot like terrorism. It's a problem that's hard to see.
Cindy McCain, wife of the senator, helped fund the research through the McCain Foundation, which is based at Arizona State, as is the lead researcher, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University. And Professor Dominique, first of all, a sex trafficking research center - obviously you are focused on this problem.
DOMINIQUE ROE-SEPOWITZ: We are. This is a national problem, a global problem, and we've made a decision at Arizona State University to focus on a national solution, trying to work with other groups around the country, law enforcement, advocacy groups, analytic groups, to try to find good information to base our decisions in the future on how to combat human sex trafficking.
YOUNG: Well, and we know that you've been gathering data obviously for a while but doing it more by hand. This time around, you called in the defense contractor Prescient Analytics. Tell us more about why you did that.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: We've been working for a number of years, searching ads by hand with law enforcement partners to try to figure out the algorithm of an ad that would have a potential minor in it, that would allow law enforcement to take that ad and create a lead, and then they would go investigate and hopefully rescue a minor.
We've partnered with Prescient Analytic to try to figure out a way to use those graphics, use those photos to better map those ads within what we can find.
YOUNG: Well, and we're reading about people who used to track insurgents in Afghanistan working for this defense contractor and going through data with the sort of same kind of deliberate approach.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: So we find some similarities between what terrorism may look like in our country and what sex trafficking looks like. More than half of the ads that we identified as potential minors were linked to other ads, other girls, other phone numbers. So we actually think that this sex trafficking world is a network, multiple networks, whether they're gangs, whether they're organized crime.
But these are not one person, one girl cases in most of these cases. So using those analytic techniques, looking at the big picture as if it were a terrorist organization or communication seems to be the next step in our work.
YOUNG: Why is it so hard? Because for instance, you say you look at ads. You looked at the most popular free sex sites online, I'm not going to name them, but outside legal brothels in Nevada, this is illegal to purchase sex, doubly illegal to purchase sex with minors, children who have been trafficked. How is it that there are online ads and you can't just go and arrest somebody?
ROE-SEPOWITZ: One of the things to remember is it is not illegal to post those ads that have women, children, trafficked persons, transgendered folks, people who are in positions where they are obviously under some sort of duress. We found thousands of ads in New York City during the Super Bowl. What that tells us is there's too many of those for law enforcement to follow each and every one of them.
Even just the 50 that we flagged over 10 days that we considered to be minors, that we reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, even those 50 are too many for any law enforcement department to follow and really do a good job.
YOUNG: And we should say when you say 50, that was in New Jersey for the Super Bowl there. You found another 34 or so in the Phoenix area.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: Right, so we think that we have to really continue to increase public awareness but also create specialty units. There's very few vice-focused units that are looking at sex trafficking of minors in the country. The other part of our study, which is the demand study, which is where we placed ads online for people to purchase sex from us, we had an average of over 50 calls a day that law enforcement would never have been able to follow up on.
How do we then take that problem for the next Super Bowl, which we didn't see a dramatic increase of ads. What we see is that there's an existence of sex trafficking ads in our community at all times, and a certain percent, probably somewhere between five and eight percent of those ads, are minors. And how are we going to deal with that problem moving forward?
YOUNG: Well, what do you hope to do? You now have these military analysts who are now working for a private defense contractor called Prescient Analytics, as we said. They have the Super Bowl Project, worked with them for two years. These are people who they don't want to just put together your data for you; they want to do something about it, I imagine. Do you have analytics which show, for instance, one hub out of which you have maybe hundreds of people generating?
ROE-SEPOWITZ: So some of the things that we learned using their analytics and some of our scanning was that the majority of the minors that we detected in Phoenix, Arizona were trafficked by local persons; their area code and their phone number was local while the adults that we scanned, and we used our analytics for with Prescient Analytics, were more likely to have out-of-town area codes.
So one of the conclusions is the minors are more likely to be victimized in our community, where adults are more likely to be brought in from other places like Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas and following the money more. Without having kind of the ability to kind of map and do major analytics, we would never have been able to learn that stuff.
YOUNG: It's like organized crime.
YOUNG: But you did find, if I'm reading this correctly, one minor's ad with her picture, a phone number, it went from Chicago to the Super Bowl in New Jersey, then to North Dakota a week after.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: We did definitely see movement for the Super Bowl. It was only 20 percent of the ads that had an ad before or after the Super Bowl that we could show came from somewhere else. But I think we would see migration for any major sporting event where there's men and money, called the demand effect, that we would see that in any locale.
YOUNG: What else can you glean? We remember the sex trafficking ring that was broken up because somebody recognized a sweater on a picture of a child, knew that it had been made in Scotland.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: One of the things that we found in our manual search was we found six girls connected by the same pillowcase. So they were all working either in the same brothel or for the same trafficker or together somehow. So we could link them. We could create this network picture.
There's some really amazing programs around the country. There's a program in Minneapolis created by the Minneapolis Police Department, where they went into hotels and took pictures of their bedspreads so that they would be able to recognize if a victim was in any of those hotels. And some hotels have a different bedspread on each floor. So they had to have many photos. And that's been very helpful.
And if we don't use analytics as much as those traffickers, it's going to continue to be what you said before, which is right in front of our face, right online. You can open up the website. You can buy a couch, and you can buy a kid at any type of day or night.
A recent study that we published was a study of how many buyers there are for online sex ads. And we found in Phoenix, Arizona we had an average of about 78,000 men calling sex ads per day. When we look at that problem from that vastness, how are we going to change the culture of buying sex as being not OK for the victim?
YOUNG: Well, especially when the victims are children. That's Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University. They are releasing a report today on the amount of sex trafficking around last year's Super Bowl and ahead of next year's in Arizona. Dominique, Professor, thanks so much.
ROE-SEPOWITZ: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And do you have thoughts on using military surveillance technology and former military analysts to track sex trafficking in the U.S.? So many girls rescued. But do you worry about the surveillance? Your thoughts on hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.