Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Applies Innovative Technology to Scan the “Dark Web” in the Fight Against Human Trafficking


February 9, 2015

Memex Has Contributed to 20 Trafficking Investigations and 8 Open Indictments

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., today announced the use of a ground-breaking new search tool that enables prosecutors to mine the Internet for evidence used to investigate, prosecute, and convict human traffickers. The initiative with IST Research (IST), a technology company funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was featured in an episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes” last night. The Memex software program provides prosecutors and analysts in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Human Trafficking Response Unit with intelligence from open-source, online prostitution advertisements to aid human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.

Since January 2014, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Human Trafficking Response Unit has worked with IST to utilize Memex, a new technology that extends beyond the reach of commercial search engines into the “dark” or “deep web.” Memex quickly and thoroughly organizes intelligence from open-source, online prostitution advertisements to aid human trafficking investigations and prosecutions. Memex is now used in every human trafficking case brought by the District Attorney’s Office, contributing to 20 active investigations and eight open indictments.

“Building evidence-based prosecutions is essential to fighting human trafficking,” said District Attorney Vance. “We cannot rely on traumatized victims alone to testify in these complex cases. When sex traffickers create online ads for their victims’ sexual services, they leave a digital footprint that leads us to their criminal activity. Because those ads are frequently removed or intentionally hidden on the ‘dark web,’ it puts them beyond the reach of typical search engines, and therefore, beyond the reach of law enforcement. With technology like Memex, we are better able to serve trafficking victims and build strong cases against their traffickers.”

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Memex inventor Chris White said: “The Internet is much, much bigger than people think. By some estimates Google, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo only give us access to around 5 percent of the content on the Web.” Memex continually scrapes online ads and creates a database, so the information is not lost and can be used to bolster human trafficking prosecutions.

Since 2010, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has sought to develop investigations and cases using evidence-based prosecutions, particularly using digital and financial forensics to build cases that do not rely on the cooperation of trafficking victims. Many traffickers rely on websites like Backpage.com to advertise their victims with rapidly changing content that is frequently disguised by the traffickers. Memex allows prosecutors to sift through this data for evidence of traffickers and their online activity. 
            
One recent case bolstered by the use of Memex technology was the successful prosecution of convicted sex trafficker Benjamin Gaston. In November 2012, Gaston kidnapped a woman who advertised sexual services on Backpage.com, forcing her to earn money for him. After two days of being subjected to numerous sexual assaults for Gaston’s profit, the victim attempted to escape from the sixth-floor window of the room where she was being held, falling more than 50 feet to the ground, breaking multiple bones. Using Memex, prosecutors were able to verify aspects of the victim’s testimony before Gaston’s trial by searching the “deep web” for advertisements with her photo, establishing a timeline that confirmed her statements and strengthened the case. Gaston was sentenced to 50-years-to-life in state prison; his co-defendant, Johnny Jackson is serving 9-to-18-years in state prison.

The District Attorney’s Human Trafficking Response Unit

Last year, District Attorney Vance announced the expansion of the Human Trafficking Program into the Human Trafficking Response Unit (HTRU). Housed within the Office’s Special Victims Bureau in the Manhattan Family Justice Center, HTRU investigates and prosecutes sex and labor trafficking cases, and provides support for victims and their families in partnership with advocacy groups. The Unit also works to identify victims in cases that may involve elements of trafficking from hundreds of street arrests that are screened and prosecuted by other areas of the Office, including the Domestic Violence Unit. 

HTRU is among the most robust anti-trafficking units of any prosecutor’s office nationwide with an in-house social worker and financial analyst joining two full-time prosecutors, 15 specially trained prosecutors, and multiple support staff. HTRU builds upon long-term investigative techniques – including wiretaps and forensic analytics – that make up the backbone of the evidence-based approach used to build these complex cases.