On an unseasonably warm spring day in early April, I was sitting outside a restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M., waiting for my boss to finish up a call before a lunch meeting. As a senior analyst for DeliverFund, the nation’s most effective counter-human trafficking organization, I often work from home; but since I’m fortunate enough to live in the same city as our executive director and co-founder, Nic McKinley, sometimes work takes me out into the sunlight.
We were heading into the restaurant when Nic received a text message. His eyes grew wide. It was good news.
He held up his phone for me to see. There was the URL for Backpage.com with a big banner across it reading “backpage.com and affiliated sites have been seized.”
I was simultaneously elated and filled with trepidation.
Elated because everybody in the anti-human trafficking industry, from those who hunt pimps or care for rescued girls to those who support and fund their efforts, has known for years that Backpage was a seething, pustulant sore that facilitated exploitative, illegal activity in the form of sex slavery; a plethora of court cases levied against it by trafficking victims and their families had been working their way through the court system for years, to no avail.
The trepidation stemmed from the fact that one of the main ways we at DeliverFund find traffickers are the countless ads they post on sites like Backpage. Our most trusted tool is Traffic Jam—an AI software program developed by our partner company Marinus Analytics, which runs complex algorithms to reduce the amount of time it has traditionally taken to locate pimps from weeks to a matter of hours.
And we knew that once Backpage went down, we’d have to pivot quickly, just as the traffickers would.
The feds seizing Backpage’s servers and indicting two of its co-founders on 93 counts of money laundering and running an online brothel after the former CEO turned state’s evidence against them was the equivalent of an atomic bomb hitting the sex trafficking industry. Overnight, advertising activity decreased as the slave market disguised as willing “sex work” was rocked by the news that Backpage and its affiliated pages had been taken down.
The team at Marinus Analytics and their partners immediately began searching to find where the traffickers were shifting their activity—because just like cockroaches, when exposed to light, they seek out other places to hide. We knew there was no way they would stop being the scum of the earth and go get real jobs; the business is just too lucrative. And when they landed, we wanted to be there, ready and waiting for them.
Working with DeliverFund and taking suggestions from law enforcement agencies across the United States, the team at Marinus Analytics was able to determine some of the sites to which the activity had moved within days of Backpage’s shutdown. Over the next three weeks, it became ever more clear which sites were becoming the dominant support mechanisms for the evil people who sell other people. Traffic Jam was already there, capturing the advertisements so law enforcement operations would not be significantly impacted.
But even then, I feared the system might not work. There had been a major change in the operating environment! Even when Backpage was up and running, at times it could be difficult (note I said “difficult,” not “impossible”) to find specific pieces of information.
The test came a month after Backpage’s seizure, when DeliverFund needed to find a trafficker in a specific city to assist one of our law enforcement partners.
I was initially hesitant to take on the project, as I feared I wouldn’t be able to produce a decent target package from the new sites being monitored. But my worry soon turned to relief, and then elation: within three hours, I found both the network and the trafficker. I was able to provide actionable intelligence to law enforcement just six hours after opening my laptop.
The counter-terrorism methodology DeliverFund worked with the assistance of Traffic Jam—proving that DeliverFund can adapt, and traffickers cannot hide.
Sadly, four months after Backpage’s shutdown, it’s like nothing ever happened. Advertisements for victims of human trafficking have quickly rebounded reflecting a significant amount of the activity we were seeing before. While it is disappointing that the sale of victims is continuing unabated, there is solace in knowing Backpage is being held accountable for facilitating pimps who sell children and women for sex online. Law enforcement agencies are back in the saddle, hunting human traffickers with the assistance of DeliverFund and Marinus Analytics. We continue to equip, train, and advise law enforcement using the most effective technologies and combining them with proven counter-terrorism methodologies.
The traffickers adapted to the Backpage shutdown quickly—but the hunters were right on their heels. We followed them, we found them, and we will continue to be relentless even when traffickers change tactics—because if they touch the internet, there’s simply no place to hide.
Editor Note: The best way you can support Kara and DeliverFund is by donating and becoming part of the fight. https://deliverfund.givingspirit.com/
Kara Smith is a Senior Analyst at DeliverFund.
Kara Smith served in the United States Air Force for six years, deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq, where she was an intelligence analyst supporting critical missions spearheaded by the National Security Agency. After separating from the military she was an analyst for the NSA, before being recruited to a serve as an analyst at a specialized counter-terrorism unit within the FBI. Kara’s unique experience in combating counter-terrorism at home and abroad directly inform the counter-terrorism methodology that DeliverFund follows to fight human trafficking here in the United States. She has a fierce tenacity and passion for counter-trafficking and won’t stop until slavery is eradicated. Kara attended American Military University.