For those kidnapped and sold into the sex slave trade, hotel rooms become a second home.
Grainy pictures online show victims huddled in dark hotel rooms, their price and description below like toys in a toy store. The anonymity of hotel accommodation has for many years protected the kidnappers, but that might all be about to change thanks to one clever app.
TraffickCam is a smartphone app created by anti-slavery organisation Exchange Initiative, and Washington University. Simply put, TraffickCam crowdsources imagery of hotels around America by encouraging users to take a photo of their hotel room, and upload to their database.
“The free TraffickCam app for iPhone, iPad and Android devices allows any traveler with a smartphone to help fight sex trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel room to an enormous, constantly updated database of hotel room images,” says the TraffickCam Facebook page.
“Room features are matched against the database of traveler images to provide law enforcement with a list of potential hotels where the photo may have been taken.”
The team at Exchange Initiative then use image recognition technology to match a hotel room with known imagery from online sex trade advertisements, in the hope of finding a match and capturing the criminals involved.
Since 2016, over 150,000 hotels have been added to the TraffickCam database, with the numbers growing every day. At last count, there was 100,000 users on the app.
So, will it work? Or is finding a perpetrator in one the photographed hotel rooms like finding a needle in a haystack?
Kimberly Ritter, director for development for Exchange Initiative, told CNN that it was “luck of the draw” to catch a victim in the hotel they were photographed in, as the groups generally move on swiftly.
However, those who are not travelling could very well be caught out.
"Local girls that are working locally with local pimps will be using local photos, the majority of the time," Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh, supervisor of the St. Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Human Trafficking Task Force, told CNN.
As it stands, TraffickCam is being used by law enforcement agencies in the United States only, with the view of taking the program worldwide once they have perfected the system.
"With this being such new and cutting-edge technology, we need to perfect it here in the States and then we'll look to making it globally accessible," says Ritter.
You can download the TraffickCam app today for free, and upload photos - they’re being stored for future use.
Australia was deemed in to be actioning the ‘minimum standards’ for preventing sex trafficking by the US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015, with Kerry noting that we were at great risk.
“Australia is primarily a destination country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking and, increasingly, for women and men subjected to forced labour,” the report states.
“Child sex trafficking occurs involving a small number of Australian citizens, primarily teenage girls, as well as foreign victims exploited within the country.”
We spoke to Professor Jennifer Burn of the University of Technology Sydney, who has been the director of Anti-Slavery Australia since 2003, about just how successful a program like TraffickCam would be in Australia.
“There are no certain statistics on the number of people trafficked or exploited in Australia,” says Professor Burn.
“In the 2015-16 year the Australian Federal Police investigated 39 cases involving sexual exploitation. Historically, the majority of cases of trafficking were women from the Asia-Pacific region trafficked into sexual exploitation, however the pattern of trafficking has changed. More recently investigation of forced marriage cases has exceeded reported cases of sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or child trafficking.”
Whilst the US Secretary of State deemed Australia to be doing ‘the minimum’ in preventing slavery, Professor Burn suggests otherwise.
“Since 2004 there has been an Australian Attorney-General’s led national response to prevent slavery and human trafficking. Australia has tough laws against trafficking and slavery and a government funded support program for victims and survivors,” says Burn.
“Specialist police teams have been established and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working actively in countries in the Asia-pacific region to promote identification of trafficking and protection of survivors.”
So, do hotel rooms play the safe role in sex trafficking cases in Australia, that they do in America where TraffickCam was created?
“Remarkably in the 18 cases that have led to a criminal prosecution and conviction in Australia, most victims were in plain sight, rather than hidden away in locked rooms or remote farms,” says Professor Burn.
“I can see that the TraffickCam would undoubtedly raise awareness about the issue of sex trafficking generally but it is difficult to see whether it would be effective in the Australian context.”
Noting that there have not been reported cases of trafficked women working in hotel rooms, Professor Burn says that TraffickCam technology may not reflect what is known about patterns of sex trafficking in Australia.
“It would be interesting to find out more about this application and whether it has been evaluated,” she adds.
Back on Australian shores, and Professor Burn says that the best we can help out is to educate ourselves about what slavery and trafficking can actually look like. Rather than the stereotype of hotel rooms and hidden locations, a lot of slavery in Australia is right under our noses.
It can include the following acts:
- Forced to work
- Abused or threatened
- Working in an unsafe environment
- Not being allowed to leave the workplace or the job
- Not being paid properly
- Being paid differently to other people doing the same job
- Working long hours with few days off
- Having a large debt that has to be paid back
- Not being able to see a doctor or go to a hospital
- Promised one kind of work but having to do something different
- Passport and other identity documents are taken by the employer
Hopefully the introduction of TraffickCam in coming years will assist in some small way to finding victims of kidnapping and sex trafficking.
Part of learning about human trafficking is also knowing about how to respond. In emergencies or where there is immediate danger, call Triple 0(000). To report a possible crime of human trafficking call the Australian Federal Police, call 131 237. If you or someone you know is being exploited you can contact Anti-Slavery Australia for free and confidential legal advice [email protected]