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Human Trafficking Center

Memex Helps Find Human Trafficking Cases Online


May 2015



By Seth Daire, Associate

In February 2015 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, announced the Memex program, which aims to create new internet search engine technologies that better discover, organize, and present information relating to specific subjects. Their initially stated goal is to apply Memex to fight human trafficking, which is a “key Defense Department mission.”

According to DARPA, human trafficking is facilitated over the Internet through the use of forums, chat services, ads, and job postings. Search engines like Google deploy  automated crawlers that browse the Internet and makes a copy of all publicly accessible content available at that time. Google then creates an index based on its replica of the Internet. Google is trying to organize information and services based on relevance and authority, so it won’t index content that people tell it not to or retain pages that quickly disappear. As such, temporary ads placed by traffickers don’t end up in that index. DARPA-funded research determined the trafficking industry spent $250 million to post more than 60 million advertisements over a two-year time frame, though it’s unclear how this was measured.

Google is part of the surface web. The remaining portion of the Internet is considered the deep web, which includes anything that requires a login for access, academic journals, membership sites and many databases. It is estimated that the deep web is 500 times larger than the surface web, though no one knows for sure.

The Tor network is also a part of the deep web, though some mistakenly say it is on the dark web, which is a part of the web no longer accessible with an Internet connection. Tor was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA for covert Internet use before being released to the public in 2004. Tor uses a series of relays that make it difficult to trace Internet activity. The Tor software client is the primary way to gain access and there are now a limited number of Tor-specific search engines. One of Memex’s aims is to better index the websites on the Tor network.

Tor has gained notoriety as a connecting point for illicit purposes, such as the Silk Road marketplace that the FBI shut down in 2013. The Silk Road was an anonymous market for illegal drugs with an estimated total revenue of $1.2 billion. In addition to illegal drugs, one can reportedly find weapons, child porn, and contract assassination. Tor is also used by those who want to avoid surveillance and censorship by government authorities, such as journalists and human rights activists. The military and law enforcement use Tor to monitor and communicate.

An early version of Memex is already in use by a limited number of law enforcement agencies. The Human Trafficking Response Unit in New York County now uses Memex in every human trafficking case it pursues. According to the NYDA’s Office, Memex has contributed to over 20 active sex trafficking investigations and to nine open indictments. Memex has also been used in Modesto, California where a detective was able to identify and arrest a sex trafficker who was traveling with victims across the Midwest and West.

Indexing is only part of the goal. Cross-referencing the data so one can quickly search based on subject is another key aspect. This data will then be able to be visualized to show where content lives and intersects, making it easier to connect the dots. For example, in a scenario where traffickers move around a country with their victims, they may post advertisements to different websites. The ads may contain similar information, such as phone numbers or photos, which can then be correlated and connected to form patterns. Thus far, Memex usage seems to be focused on sex trafficking. However, DARPA has stated that they intend to focus on labor trafficking as well, which is encouraging.

Memex is still in the early stages of development. While it will no doubt be a useful advanced tool, there is much that can be done in the meantime with the current Google ecosystem, given the proper software and training. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) professionals, for instance, use a variety of tools that cross-reference links and data to mine insights. It’s fairly easy to ascertain what people are searching for in cities and to see trends over time. Between current software tools and future ones like Memex, law enforcement can increase its efforts to fight human trafficking.

Photo credit:  Seth Daire

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7 Responses to “Memex Helps Find Human Trafficking Cases Online”

  1. Tom Kenis

    Dear Sir/Mme,
    Myria, the Belgian national rapporteur on human trafficking is currently preparing its annual report. The main theme is the role of internet and social media in human trafficking. We were wondering if it’s possible to use the visual at the top of this page (for a segment on the dark web).
    Thanks a lot in advance.
    Best regards,
    Tom Kenis

  2. Tracy

    is there any software available to that can tell an investigator that another agency is investigating a victim or suspect of HT?

  3. Save Victims of Human Trafficking

    It’s amazing to see how modern technology is being applied to the issue of human trafficking – particularly in the case of the deep web where as stated in the article, is firstly difficult to access and more so, ephemeral, hence similarly difficult to track. It’s incredibly encouraging to see law enforcement adopting Memex to their sexual trafficking cases however considering the greater proportion of labor based human trafficking, hopefully their intention to use it within this aspect of human trafficking comes to fruition soon.

    – SVOHT

  4. Tim Martine

    I am always curious as what darknet is… As much as I want to surf on that page there is always a hesitation on my part because i’m afraid that most of the user of darknet are hackers and I might get hack by them.


  5. Seth Daire

    Daniel, the Scientific American article linked above mentioned use of Memex in New York City and Modesto, California, but I’m not aware of anyone using it in Colorado. I’m not aware of any other software tools used by law enforcement for human trafficking. However, since I do Internet marketing and search engine optimization, I am aware of tools and techniques for mixing and matching search engine data. So while Memex tools are capable of specific functions immediately useful for investigation purposes, there’s a lot more that can be done using tools available to everyone. Lastly, an NPR interview published later included additional information on how Memex tools can work,

  6. Daniel Main


    I talked with an HTC Research Assistant, and she said that you had a tech background. I was wondering what else you might know about MEMEX and who is actually employing the software right now. I thought I had heard that someone in Baltimore was using it but I wasn’t sure if you know of anyone in Colorado currently using the technology. Also, aside from Spotlight, Rescue Forensics and Traffic Jam, are you aware of any other tools that law enforcement around the country is using to combat human trafficking domestically?

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