An app for stopping crime – TraffickCam

Sep 25, 2016
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We start to get used to that there are apps existing literally for everything. There are apps to do sports, to loose weight, for messaging your friends, for taking, editing and sharing photos. They are all undoubtedly useful, but you might didn’t know that some developers aimed for an even higher goal: to help the society work better by reducing the amount of crime. TraffickCam is a freshly launched smartphone app that invites its users to help the work of the police. Here it is how.

Sex trafficking unfortunately is a booming industry. Adult women are the most common victims but many children as well. The criminals force their victims to do sex work, like prostitution – of course without their own will. The problem cannot be stopped within national borders as trafficking is a cross-border phenomenon – it requires international cooperation. For those who think that it is the job of the authorities to deal with crime and there is nothing we, uninitiated people can do, here is the news: you are wrong.

TraffickCam provides a super easy way to give at least a little assistance to the police in finding the criminals. Sex traffickers in many cases take and post photos online of their victims – they use it as kind of an advertisement. And here is the thing: these photos are usually taken in hotel rooms which means they give a clue for investigators. The only difficulty is to find out which hotel is that and where it is. That’s where the role of TraffickCam users come. The app invites people to take photos of their hotel rooms when they travel somewhere thus investigators gain a bigger and bigger database of potential crime scenes. These pictures can be used as evidences in finding the traffickers. Yes, this is how easy you can assist. You don’t believe that your one photo can count? Well, just remember that many small acts can make up for a huge help.

Inside the Research: Developing TraffickCam

Robert Pless, professor of Computer Science & Engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and research associate/doctoral candidate Abby Stylianou, have designed a new, web-based application that helps fight sex trafficking.

Using the potential of smartphones in crime situations started already years ago. Still, TraffickCam is unique in its genre as all other applications are mostly launched by local police departments – like Palo Alto Police Department – and work only on a very narrow local level and to announce a crime. Though it is true they also allow users to take photos, videos, or voice records as an evidence and there are examples on non-local ones as well – like Community Against Crime. But these applications are more for the case when a crime is happening in the moment and not for supporting a bigger investigation in long term. In London, there was a bit similar initiative, called Facewatch ID in 2012 which invited locals to help trace London riot suspects. But again: it worked only in a city, and not on a national, or what would be even better: on a global level.

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TraffickCam invites you to assist investigation through a very simple act: just take four photos of the room you are staying at. Moreover, it is free to use. And you can never know when your photos will be the ones that make possible to arrest a suspect. The idea is very smart as the app provides an uncountable amount of civil investigators for the authorities. The only weakness of the app is that it operates only at a national level – only in the USA. And this is actually a relatively big defect because as we mentioned earlier, sex trafficking is a cross-border problem, it does not stay inside of one country.

Nevertheless, the initiative is clever and shows the way for development. If more and more countries would make an effort to use technology this way – instead of concentrating on the (financially) more profitable entertaining media – then it would be possible to build up a cross-country cooperation to fight off crime.

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Noemi Arki

I work on the field of tech journalism for three years. My favorite topics are tech and media related subjects as I am an enthusiastic user of new media and tech innovations.

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