Sitting in an operations center outside Washington, Josh Gearheart and his team have spent the last week tracing the digital footprints of Super Bowl sex traffickers with the same technology he once used to hunt insurgents in Afghanistan.
A former Army intelligence officer, Gearheart is part of a two-year partnership between trafficking researchers and a defense contractor called Praescient Analytics, whose 100 employees normally provide intelligence analysis to the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others from the company's headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
The group’s goal is to discern how gangs and traffickers operate as 400,000 fans descend on New Jersey and New York for the country’s biggest sports-themed bacchanal and then apply that knowledge to next year’s game in Arizona. A separate coalition of law enforcement agencies arrested 18 people Thursday, breaking up a cocaine and sex ring that was operating in the shadows of the championship game, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
"Any sports venue and especially the Super Bowl acts as a sex trafficking magnet," said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, at a Jan. 27 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on trafficking and sports events. "Along with welcoming enthusiastic fans, the state also is preparing for the likely influx of both domestic and international traffickers."
The Praescient project is one of the most comprehensive efforts to collect data on these kinds of criminal networks, who researchers say are drawn by the event’s affluent attendees and heavy partying.
Praescient's team is scooping up reams of Internet data — from telephone numbers in online ads to the coded language pimps use to signal the availability of an underage girl — in the lead-up to this weekend’s game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Preliminary data collected by the project show that prostitutes are being transported to the area from more than half the states in the U.S.
"Sex trafficking is a really hard-to-see problem," said Dan Potocki, who directs the Initiatives Group at Praescient. "That’s where our experience working with other hard-to-see problems like terrorism can help."
Anti-trafficking efforts around the National Football League championship game have stirred controversy before, with law enforcement officials in cities like Indianapolis, which hosted the event in 2012, casting doubt about whether a spike in activity was real.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has called the Super Bowl the single largest sex-trafficking incident in the U.S., and the issue has become a major focus for New Jersey organizers who fear the conjunction of a dense interstate highway network and proximity to New York City will exacerbate the problem this year.
From the moment the venue was announced, New Jersey officials began training hundreds of hotel employees, airport personnel, and even truck drivers on how to recognize trafficking victims. The state's Criminal Justice Division convened an event this week to raise awareness about "this modern day slavery ahead of the 2014 Super Bowl," according to a division statement.
At the House hearing, Smith said that 10,000 prostitutes were transported to Miami for the Super Bowl in 2010, citing an often-repeated statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The center has no idea how its former president, Ernie Allen, derived the number for Miami, said Staca Shehan, director of its case analysis division. "When asked, we try to correct the record," she said.
That's exactly the problem that Praescient is meant to solve, according to supporters of the effort.
"There just isn't a whole lot of data," said Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. The Washington-based McCain Institute is funding the project through Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, which brought in Praescient to carry out the study.
That problem stems from an organized sex trade that can range from a handful of pimps working together to major cartels trafficking women across several states, according to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the Arizona State researcher on sex trafficking who designed the project. Major gangs are known to be deeply involved, often coordinating large networks from bases in Los Angeles and other cities, she said. The researchers are focused on identifying and helping minors and women forced into prostitution.
Keeping the women moving is a common tactic to avoid law enforcement, said Roe-Sepowitz, who refers to it as "the circuit." Super Bowls are an especially lucrative stopping point, fed by the combination of affluence and a male-dominated crowd, she said.
Praescient will be using a data analytics platform initially funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and made by Palo Alto, Cal.-based Palantir Technologies. Praescient's Chief Executive Officer, Katie Crotty, used the Palantir software as a military intelligence officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of her analysts had similar experiences in previous careers with U.S. Special Forces, the FBI, or U.S. intelligence agencies.
The software can collate large volumes of data from different sources, and identify relationships that a human analyst might miss, Crotty said. That makes it ideal for tracking shadowy networks: insurgents in the horn of Africa, money launderers skipping funds through the international banking system, or gangs trafficking women across multiple states.
"We can do in hours what a researcher might take weeks to do," said Jonathan Larkin, a Praescient analyst working on the project. "It’s analysis at warp speed."
Praescient engineers developed software to scoop up data from websites where the traffickers advertise. They also had to learn the language used by the traffickers and create filters to flag it.
"From the islands" or "kitty" are among the code words for underage prostitutes, according to the Arizona State’s Roe-Sepowitz, while ads written in the third person could suggest a woman is handled by a pimp or a gang. Telephone numbers common to many ads can link several women to a single network.
Tapping a few keys on one of the project’s computers, Larkin opened its map depicting the geographical reach of this year’s trafficking. It showed women being transported to northern New Jersey and New York from Arkansas, Missouri, Idaho, California, Washington and many other states.
As the game gets closer, the amount of data will spike, said Gearheart, the Super Bowl project leader and Praescient's deputy director of capabilities. Praescient analysts will be able to map the way that prostitutes are deployed before and after the game, the hotels used, and certain links between groups of traffickers and their operational techniques.
"I have kids — a lot of us do — and that’s why we feel so strongly about supporting this," Gearheart said.
The trafficking project will continue through next year’s Super Bowl, which will be held in Glendale, Ariz. The state university’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research will help analyze this year's data, and McCain said law enforcement in Arizona is planning on using it to develop more effective strategies.
"I'm thrilled that the technology is used by our military, but I'm equally thrilled that it's going to be used for this," said McCain. "We want to help defend these girls, but also get them help."
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