When Emily Kennedy was growing up in northern California, adults had plenty to say about her.
A bull in a china shop. Strong-willed. Unwavering determination and energy that needed to be channeled in a positive direction. In elementary school, one teacher told Kennedy’s parents their only child had “an overactive sense of justice.” A fighter, in other words, and a girl on a mission.
As a teenager, that mission began taking shape while Kennedy was visiting eastern Europe. Street children trying to wash car windows for pay struck the 16-year-old Kennedy as more desperate than the usual beggars.
“Those kids are trafficked by the Russian mob,” a friend told her. “If they don’t bring back enough money to their owners, they get punished.”
“Children my age and even younger were being exploited,” Kennedy, now 27, tells Citizen. “I tend to internalize those things, and I was really hit hard with that reality.”
But there’s another reality, too: Since 2013, at least 300 victims of human trafficking nationwide have been rescued in multiple stings through various state and local operations—and their recoveries can be traced directly to Kennedy’s efforts.
Though Kennedy jokingly refers to herself as a “grad school dropout,” she had some pretty good reasons not to continue her education: In 2011, the software program she and some fellow students wrote together started making the rounds of law enforcement agencies—and since then, traffickers have been consistently located, charged and convicted of their crimes at an incredible rate.
Blame—and bless—that overactive sense of justice.
A Traffic Jam Begins
Kennedy is the founder and CEO of Marinus Analytics, a Pittsburgh-based social innovation company that designs and facilitates technology to help law enforcement officers nationwide fight human trafficking. Named after an artificial intelligence program at Kennedy’s alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, Marinus produces “high technology implementations, with particular emphasis on artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive modeling, and geospatial analysis,” according to its website.
What exactly does that mean? Kennedy, who declares herself “not the tech force behind everything,” and “just the person with the mission who corrals all the geniuses to accomplish that mission,” says it simply means taking high-tech tools and making them accessible and usable for the average law enforcement officer.
It’s a calling she began to hear in junior high. Kennedy’s former youth group leader had moved to the red- light district of Cambodia to help sex trafficking victims, and when he returned for a visit, she learned about trafficking for the first time. What she heard was horrifying—and moving.
“It inspired me, that someone would give their life to do something about [trafficking],” Kennedy says.
Then came her experience with the eastern European window washers, which only whetted her appetite to learn more. As the years passed, she devoured everything she found on the topic, and by 2011, she knew she wanted to incorporate the fight against trafficking into her senior thesis.
Though her major—ethics, history and public policy—wasn’t computer-related, Kennedy quickly recognized that the internet was helping pimps far more than it was helping cops or families searching for loved ones. With seedy, often unmoderated classified services abounding, traffickers could recruit, advertise, move around and deliver their “charges” practically undetected. By the time anyone could figure out who was selling whom, and where, all the parties involved were long gone, onto the next location and sale.
What would law enforcement need to track victims across cities and states, Kennedy wondered? Then came the realization: Cash-strapped, overworked local agencies certainly didn’t have the money to invent something new like that. It would be up to her.
“I was always brought up a Christian, brought up to believe that our lives should have purpose,” Kennedy explains. “It’s not about success personally, or getting things for yourself or family; it’s about how can your life help others.”
So Kennedy got to work, reading thousands of online sex ads from around the country. She soon noticed similarities between the postings, surmising that pimps were writing ads using specific “tells” in vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling and the like.
What if there was a way, she mused, to compile and analyze all this raw data? Furthermore, what if software could match certain cell phone numbers or email addresses with certain ads, and therefore identify certain pimps and victims?
After working extensively with programmers, Kennedy had her answer: Traffic Jam, a computer program that not only groups specific posts together—thereby helping to identify the big fish in the trafficking hierarchy—but also allows users to search the contact information associated with sex ads and correlate it with unsolved trafficking cases.
Traffic Jam’s eventual success and application—“I cannot say enough about Traffic Jam,” one California detective, who asked to remain nameless, enthused—made all the time Kennedy had to spend wading through obscene sex ads worthwhile.
“These children [who get trafficked] often grew up in terrible situations that they have no control over,” Kennedy says. “If I was born into a different family, I could have been one of those girls. It could have been me.”
The Next Level
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2012, Kennedy began working at Carnegie Mellon as a researcher. One year later, Traffic Jam was ready for real-world law enforcement usage. And in 2014, it all came together under the umbrella of Marinus Analytics, a five-person company (plus interns) whose eventual goal is to expand into Asia, Mexico and the United Kingdom. In 2015, Marinus Analytics received a grant from the National Science Foundation and a contract with the prestigious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Today, approximately 125 American law enforcement agencies at all levels use Traffic Jam; on average, each user identifies 15 victims and six traffickers a month. The one-of-a-kind software program has reduced analysis time by approximately 50 percent, Kennedy says.
Kennedy explains how the process might work for a teenage runaway:
An older man or woman, noticing the girl is alone and unsure of herself, starts making conversation. After a few weeks of solid wooing, the teenager thinks she’s in love. So when the adult says, “I’m broke, so if you go on a date with this other guy, he’ll pay you, and it will really help me,” she usually acquiesces.
Then comes the exploitation. The trafficker usually takes the girl’s cell phone and all her money, then plies her with drugs and alcohol. Physical abuse is common. The trafficker transports her from city to city, often across state lines, selling her to as many buyers as possible through here-today-gone-tomorrow online ads that are incredibly difficult to trace.
“Sometimes the trafficker will go with the victims,” Kennedy explains, “but other times he might have girls working in different states—and they wire him any money they make.”
Police officers, detectives and concerned family members formerly had to comb through thousands of online data bits individually. For example, an investigator might tape a photo of a missing teenager to his or her computer, then read through hundreds of sex ads in locations where the teen might be—one by one. It was a time-consuming, painful and often inaccurate process that yielded few results.
But with Traffic Jam, the program does the work instead—and does it far better.
Rich Lebel is the director of the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Arizona Attorney General’s office. TRAC manages a database consisting of approximately 75 million financial transactional records made available to American law enforcement for investigative purposes. With access to every detail of significant financial transactions through 14 of the world’s largest money service businesses (think Western Union or Moneygram), TRAC can spot possible trafficking and laundering activities originating and/or ending in several key U.S. states and neighboring nations.
“As you can imagine, we’re able to see all sorts of criminal activity that occurs through the movement of money around the world,” Lebel tells Citizen, “whether it be illicit proceeds related to human smuggling, fraud, drug/weapons trafficking, cybercrime and of course, human trafficking.”
Previously, TRAC personnel used Google to look for individual phone numbers, hoping the search engine might serendipitously find a sex ad that featured it. But once TRAC began using Traffic Jam, detectives were suddenly able to run hundreds of thousands of numbers in a single day that had been used in both an ad and a financial transaction.
“You often times hear the phrase ‘force multiplier’ thrown around, but Traffic Jam truly is a force multiplier for TRAC,” says Lebel. “I truly believe this is a paradigm shift that is sorely needed in how sex trafficking investigations are conducted around the U.S.”
That was how TRAC recently helped capture a repeated sex trafficker in Arizona. Without Traffic Jam, Lebel says, investigators never would have been able to piece together the relationship between the trafficker and his victims.
FaceSearch & Beyond
It’s stories like those that keep Kennedy striving toward the next piece of the artificial intelligence puzzle. Last June, Marinus released its newest technology: FaceSearch, the first facial-recognition tool designed to make trafficking investigations faster and more accurate. With FaceSearch, users don’t even need a phone number to look for a victim—just a photo. From there, the program maps victims’ faces and then matches them to those featured in sex ads.
Detective Peter Sweeney of the San Antonio Police Department’s (SAPD) Special Victims and Human Trafficking Units was one of Marinus’ first customers. While Traffic Jam has “changed the game,” as he tells Citizen, FaceSearch “left us in awe of what [Kennedy] is doing.”
“[Marinus] is the keys to our car; we can’t go anywhere without them now,” says Sweeney, a daily user of Traffic Jam and FaceSearch. “We couldn’t do what Marinus is doing the old-fashioned way.”
Now, Sweeney’s division and the FBI Violent Crimes Against Children Unit find they’re regularly fielding requests for information about Marinus’ programs from other agencies statewide—including the SAPD Missing Person Unit, Bexar County Juvenile Probations Officers and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, to name just a few.
As of last October, FaceSearch’s database had nearly two million images in it, making it immeasurably easier for investigators to see whether someone has possibly been sold online. A Marinus survey of 10 users, conducted last fall, revealed that they have an 88 percent success rate in finding victims.
And that started within days of the technology’s debut.
“There was a missing 16-year-old girl in California, and the story was aired in a neighboring jurisdiction,” Kennedy says. “On a whim, [an investigator] took a photo of her from a news story, searched it, found her match, went to her ad and saw it was her. He passed on the info to the agency that was working her case. Immediately they set up a ‘date’ with her, rescued her and arrested two traffickers. We’ve heard that sort of story over and over.”
Another story Kennedy has heard repeatedly, however, isn’t as positive: Christians who assume they are powerless in the fight against trafficking.
“One of the biggest needs [after a victim is rescued] is emergency housing,” Kennedy says. Therefore, it’s vital for churches to train and work with local agencies to fill that need. There’s also a shocking dearth of Christians providing foster care for children—meaning those kids are more likely to be trafficked.
“[Trafficking] involves a revolving door of children who do not get the support they need,” Kennedy points out. “If we can fill in the cracks and prevent kids from falling through, the impact we’re going to have in that kid’s life is infinite.”
Kennedy has accepted several awards for her work, most recently a second-place finish in the prestigious “Female Founders in Tech” competition, with its accompanying social innovation buzz and $6,000 prize. But while Kennedy appreciates the honor, she needs no accolades to stay motivated in what is often a dangerous, lonely line of work.
“I firmly believe our mandate from God is to care about all the people in our society—not just those in our social group or socioeconomic level,” she says. “I encourage people to think of these children as if they were their own.
“Because God thinks all these people are valuable.”
Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.