Ad-tracking software developed by the Robotics Institute's Auton Lab and spinoff company Marinus Analytics helped the FBI and local law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen U.S. cities execute a sting operation targeting illegal Asian brothels.
The software, called Traffic Jam, was used by the Pittsburgh-based National Cyber Forensics and Training Alliance (NCFTA) to support the investigation, which resulted in a federal grand jury in Oregon charging six people with sex trafficking. The indictments were unsealed last month following a series of arrests by FBI Portland's Child Exploitation Task Force during the federal government shutdown.
"Pittsburgh has been at the forefront of developing modern approaches to combating the hidden crime of sex trafficking," said Cara Jones, CEO and co-founder of Marinus Analytics. "Private-public partnerships like these have produced effective methods and tools to keep law enforcement ahead of the curve in the digital era."
According to the indictments, a criminal enterprise headed by Zongtao "Mark" Chen recruited women, primarily in China, to travel to the United States to engage in prostitution. The women worked at brothels set up in hotels and apartment complexes.
The Traffic Jam software aids law enforcement in identifying sex trafficking activity by analyzing images and text in online ads for escort and other sex-related services. It was originally developed by Artur Dubrawski, the research professor who heads the Auton Lab; Emily Kennedy, a Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences alumna and a former research analyst in the Auton Lab; and other researchers. Kennedy, co-founder and president of Marinus, is widely recognized for her work with Traffic Jam, including being named to Forbes magazine's 2019 list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs and earning a 2018 Toyota Mother of Invention award.
The NCFTA, which identified the criminal group's cyber presence and assisted in the seizure of websites related to the Chen investigation, is a nonprofit partnership between private industry, government and academia to enable collaboration in identifying, mitigating and disrupting cybercrime.