KDD Papers

Backpage and Bitcoin: Uncovering Human Traffickers

Rebecca S. Portnoff (UC Berkeley);Danny Yuxing Huang (UC San Diego);Periwinkle Doerfler (NYU);Sadia Afroz (ICSI);Damon McCoy (NYU)


Sites for online classified ads selling sex are widely used by human traffickers to support their pernicious business. The sheer quantity of ads makes manual exploration and analysis unscalable. In addition, discerning whether an ad is advertising a trafficked victim or a independent sex worker is a very difficult task. Very little concrete ground truth (i.e., ads definitively known to be posted by a trafficker) exists in this space. In this work, we develop tools and techniques that can be used separately and in conjunction to group sex ads by their true owner (and not the claimed author in the ad). Specifically, we develop a machine learning classifier that uses stylometry to distinguish between ads posted by the same vs. different authors with 96% accuracy. We also design a linking technique that takes advantage of leakages from the Bitcoin mempool, blockchain and sex ad site, to link a subset of sex ads to Bitcoin public wallets and transactions. Finally, we demonstrate via a 4-week proof of concept using Backpage as the sex ad site, how an analyst can use these automated approaches to potentially find human traffickers.