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Cal Poly cybersecurity program works to uncover human trafficking

James Baker/Cal Poly
An immersive display of an illicit massage parlor was created by Cal Poly staff and students to help law enforcement uncover signs of human trafficking.

A Cal Poly program is helping combat human trafficking. Staff from theuniversity’s California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) recently met with law enforcement officers from across the state to demonstrate how to spot signs of human trafficking operations in places like massage parlors. 

It is estimated human trafficking is a $150 billion-dollar-a-year global industry. Danielle Borrelli, with the CCI, has been working to educate people about the form of modern-day slavery for almost a decade.

“Human trafficking at its core is the exploitation of someone’s vulnerability for a service or profit,” Borrelli said. “Predominantly, we see that in sexual services or labor service.”

Borrelli was recently at a convention in Long Beach aimed at giving California law enforcement officers new crime fighting tools. She said since 2007, there have been about 8,000 cases of human trafficking in the state and 90% involve sex trafficking.

“In the past year alone, there have been over 1,200 substantiated cases within California,” Borrelli said. “In the past couple of years in San Luis Obispo County, there have been about 32 identified vicitms of human trafficking.”

Borrelli and Cal Poly students designed an immersive display of a massage parlor acting as a front for human trafficking. She used the set to show law enforcement what to look for in a sex trafficking operation. She said illicit massage parlors may often have fake business licenses up and even hang anti-human trafficking signs. But Borrelli said if authorities look deeper, they might see signs of human trafficking, such as condoms and other paraphernalia in trash can, a lot of makeup lying aournd and pillows and blankets on the floor. These could be signs that a lot of people are working and sleeping on-site.

Even if a massage parlor is suspected of being a human trafficking operation, Borrelli said victims aren’t always forthcoming. They may be afraid: someone could be threatening their life or someone else's if they talk to authorities so the CCI also teaches law enforcement  how to spot digital signs.

“You’re going to find conversations, price agreements on WeChat, which is an application that is commonly used,” Borrelli said. [There are] text messages, other social media platforms and postings online.”

Borrelli said web crawling technology, data science and photo recognition can all be used to find evidence. In 2020, the CCI plans to launch a new digital hub at Cal Poly and unveil a new software program they created to help law enforcemt worldwide uncover human trafficking operations.

Borrelli said the first step in combattting human trafficking still relies on the public being observant.

“If anything seems suspicious, whether it seems like someone is being held against their will, isolated or in a weird predicament—reach out and say something,” Borrelli said.

Signs a massage parlor could be a front might include blacked-out windows and late night activity, with predominantly male clientele. She said if you suspect anything, it’s best to call an anti-human trafficking organization. Borrelli said such organizations keep track of suspected human trafficking outfits and stay touch with law enforcement.

There are an estimated 70 suspected human trafficking operations here on the Central Coast; a number that could rise if more people learn to recognize the signs.

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