Photo: Francisco Osorio
IT’S REPULSIVE TO EVEN think of, but sex traffickers need to advertise, just like everyone else. And to do so, they will often take pictures of the children they are abusing, and will post these pictures to the darker corners of the internet. Oftentimes, the place sex traffickers will set up shop is in hotel rooms, so that’s frequently where the pictures end up being taken.
An app called TraffickCam has been set up to help catch these modern-day slavers in the act. How it works is simple:
- Download the app or go to the website.
- Take pictures of your hotel room when you arrive at your destination.
- Submit the pictures to the app.
- The app puts them into a massive database, which law enforcement can then compare to the photos that the sex traffickers use as advertisements.
- If there’s a match, law enforcement officials may well be able to track down the sex trafficker, and save their victims.
The app has suggestions for how to take the pictures, which you release under a creative commons license to them. As of November 2016, over 1.6 million photos had been uploaded to the database. The group that runs the app, the Exchange Initiative, says that while the app is only currently operating in the US, where they are working with law enforcement, but they hope to eventually go worldwide.
Travelers are often the front lines against sex trafficking.
The ugly truth a lot of sex trafficking occurs in close proximity to the travel industry. Hotels in particular are havens for this type of illegal activity, as the hospitality industry puts high value on discretion and relative anonymity. Pimps and sex traffickers exploit this environment, and use hotels as safe havens.
Recently, hotels have started training their staff for how to recognize sex traffickers — red flags like guests paying in cash, or large groups of children, or kids made up to look older than they are, or the lack of luggage, or the presence of drugs or alcohol around children, or the sneaking in of women and girls through side doors — all of these together may point towards sex trafficking, and hotel managers have to make a judgment call as to whether they should involve the police.
Likewise, airlines are starting to train their staffs to spot sex trafficking as well, and it’s already saving lives: one flight attendant noticed something wrong between an older man and a young, teenaged girl he was traveling with. She tried to engage the man, but he became defensive, so the attendant left a note for the girl in the bathroom, who wrote back asking for help. The attendant informed the captain, and the police were waiting at the gate when they landed.
Training programs are being supported by the UN’s Be a Responsible Traveler program, which helps provides materials to tourist organizations that may be able to stop trafficking.
Public awareness is hugely important.
“Raising awareness” gets sneered at a lot of the time (sometimes justifiably so), but in the case of sex trafficking, a big part of the problem is that travelers in the United States assume it just doesn’t happen here, so they aren’t on the lookout for warning signs. As a result, a lot of trafficking slips under the radar.
The TraffickCam app is still in its relatively early stages, but its creators already believe the program is a success solely on the basis of raising awareness. It’s an “if you see something, say something,” type of fight, and with more people on the lookout, we have a better chance of getting these kids out of the hellish trafficking rings they’re trapped in, and back into their childhoods.