IST named pilot school for Homeland Security’s human trafficking Blue Campaign

April 30, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students are on the forefront of helping the United States government tackle the very real issue of slavery in and beyond Pennsylvania — and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is listening.

DHS has identified Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) as a pilot school in its Blue Campaign to raise awareness about human trafficking, generally defined as a modern form of slavery where victims are forced into labor or sexual servitude under the threat of force or coercion. Homeland Security describes its Blue Campaign as a unified collaboration with law enforcement, government, non-government and private organizations to combat human trafficking, protect the basic right of freedom and bring those who exploit human lives to justice.

The IST undergraduate student research group is one of just three participating university groups nationwide -- with the University of Oklahoma and George Mason University -- presenting projects to DHS officials at a Blue Campaign stakeholders event today (April 30) in the nation’s capital.

The IST undergraduate student research group is one of just three participating university groups nationwide presenting projects to Homeland Security officials today (April 30) in the nation’s capital.

“This research project is the epitome of what we do in IST, which is to use technology to better understand information,” said Peter Forster, IST’s associate dean of Online Education and Information Technology and a faculty adviser to the undergraduate researchers. “But in this case, that only takes you so far; you need to introduce the human factor to begin to delve into this issue.”

For the past two years, Forster has overseen the group of four undergraduate researchers examining human trafficking in Pennsylvania, in conjunction with the commonwealth’s law enforcement. The student researchers, led by Jesse Altmire, a senior graduating in May with a degree in security and risk analysis (SRA), also include Aubree Biggs, a senior graduating in May with a degree in international politics and SRA minor, Andrea Forster, a junior SRA major, and Addie Jackson, a junior with a dual major in SRA and psychology. The human component of their work is evident in the passion the students have for their research.

“I feel like I was lucky to find this project,”  Jackson explained. “When I first chose to be an SRA major, I read a report online from someone at the FBI working on human trafficking, and she had a Ph.D. in psychology. When I read that report I knew that’s what I wanted to be involved in.”

The students’ work has resulted in raised awareness with Homeland Security, a student-led seminar on human trafficking held in January at the University Park campus, and participation in March at the annual Undergraduate Research at the Capitol-Pennsylvania Harrisburg event, where students presented their research poster, “Applying Information Analytics to Human Trafficking,” to state legislators and visitors. The quartet will present this same information to DHS.

The human trafficking seminar sought to bring together law enforcement and social service practitioners, researchers, students and concerned citizens to raise awareness of the growing human trafficking problem in Pennsylvania, and launch a dialog on issues related to sex trafficking and strategies for prevention, intervention and interdiction. They hope to repeat and expand the seminar in 2016, raising student and public awareness of human trafficking in Pennsylvania and the United States while refining and expanding their research.

“Moving forward, we have a lot of data, but analyzing it and making actual assumptions from the data is something we need to do a little more as a group,” Andrea Forster said. “At DHS, I’m interested to hear what research other people are doing and to see if there’s any way what we’re doing fits into that and if what they’re doing can help us.”

graphic with color-coded circles, or nodes, labeled by data type and connected by lines to other nodes to map network of website activity

Undergraduate researchers in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) processed approximately 500,000 ads from a public online social network and identified data, cataloged by listed telephone numbers, that indicated the website is used as a recruiting platform for criminal activity. This visualization of the network's studied activity labels data by phone, article, location and hub. Future research may analyze the data using natural language processing techniques, keyword classification and other attributes to identify potential sex-trafficking sub-networks.

IMAGE: Penn State

In the previous year, researchers completed geospatial mapping around Pennsylvania strip clubs and truck stops, known to be hubs for sex trafficking. With the current project, students cataloged approximately 500,000 online ads captured within several months in fall 2014 and spring 2015 from a publicly accessible online sex solicitation website, with the goal to understand or develop a network structure from the information in the ads. Each was cataloged by telephone numbers listed, and students studied keywords in the ads using digital tools to try to identify nodes or connections within a potential network of data. From this data, they might begin to make assumptions about structures that may exist, and can start to identify potential facilitators of sex trafficking.

The magnitude of their work’s impact isn’t lost on the students.

“When I came to college I really wanted to be able to do something that I thought made an actual difference.… To be able to go out and do research and build tools and technologies to aid law enforcement in combating this problem really means a lot to me.”

– Jesse Altmire, senior, security and risk analysis

“When I came to college I really wanted to be able to do something that I thought made an actual difference,” Altmire said. “I know that there’s a lot of research opportunities here, but to be able to help tackle a problem like sex trafficking, which is a horrendous crime — it is paid rape; that’s what it is — and to be able to go out and do research and build tools and technologies to aid law enforcement in combating this problem really means a lot to me.”

“This project has really enlightened me into all the ways that you can address an issue,” Biggs added. “It has helped me better incorporate the skills I’ve learned as a student into addressing real-world problems.”

Their adviser agrees. “This is an important engaged scholarship opportunity for our students, undergraduate research with potential for real impact on human lives,” Peter Forster said.

  • Blue logo for human trafficking public awareness campaign by Department of Homeland Security with tagline: One Voice. One Mission. End Human Trafficking.

    The Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign is "a unified collaboration with law enforcement, government, non-government and private organizations to combat human trafficking, protect the basic right of freedom and bring those who exploit human lives to justice." More information is available at http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign.

    IMAGE: Department of Homeland Security

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 12, 2016