If you are tracking the term ‘Bitcoin’ on many social media networks to keep up to date with the latest cryptocurrency news, you are probably also getting a few indecent propositions every day. Now a group of researchers have used AI to track down the people behind these online sex ads and map out their business dealings using the public blockchain.
This is the first step towards developing a suite of freely available tools to help police and nonprofit institutions identify victims of sexual exploitation, explained the computer scientists from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, the University of California in Berkeley, and University of California in San Diego.
Besides the obvious issue of people trying to mask their online identity in many ways, an automated system will face an added difficulty of determining which online ads reflect willing participants in the sex trade and which reflect victims forced into prostitution. The research team’s approach relies on machine learning algorithms to solve this.
Damon McCoy, an NYU Tandon assistant professor of computer science and engineering and one of the paper’s co-authors, explained that combining these techniques to identify sex ads by both author and Bitcoin owner represents a considerable advance in assisting law enforcement and nonprofit organizations: “There are hundreds of thousands of these ads placed every year, and any technique that can surface commonalities between ads and potentially shed light on the owners is a big boost for those working to curb exploitation,” he said.
“The technology we’ve built finds connections between ads,” said Rebecca Portnoff, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in computer science who developed the algorithm as part of her dissertation. “Is the pimp behind that post for Backpage also behind this post in Craigslist? Is he the same man who keeps receiving Bitcoin for trafficked girls? Questions like these are answerable only through more sophisticated technological tools – exactly what we’ve built in this work – that link ads together using payment mechanisms and the language in the ads themselves.”
They acknowledge, however, that they were unable to verify whether matches they made using real-life ads and Bitcoin transaction information truly correspond to individuals tied to human trafficking – that matter must ultimately be pursued by police.