Illustrations by Cathryn Virginia

How Artificial Intelligence Is Tracking Sex Traffickers

Machine learning technology is opening up new strategies to find and prosecute the men who profit from the worst of the illegal sex trade

Liz Brody
Published in
19 min readMay 8, 2019

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“Hey there. You available?”

“Yes I am… how long did you want company for?”

“Was hoping for an hour, maybe half. Depends.”

“Half. 125 hour. 200 donation.”

“Gotcha. Can you stay for half hour then?”

“You’re not a cop or affiliated with any law enforcement, right?”

“Ha. No. You?”

In the thrum of texts that flit across cell towers every day, arranging sex from online ads, this was just another exchange. What followed, however, was anything but ordinary.

On June 4, 2015, a 33-year-old woman pulled off a road in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and knocked on the door of room 209 at the Staybridge Suites. She expected an assignation with the man who had sent the earlier texts. What she got, once she accepted payment, was a sting. The man was a state trooper.

So far, a pretty normal prostitution bust. But then things took a turn. The woman told the troopers that she actually hadn’t been the one texting. The texter was a man she knew as “GB,” and he was waiting for her in a silver Acura out in the hotel parking lot. She also wasn’t the only woman GB was working. There were others, including a teen the woman once saw GB smack to the ground. There were drugs involved, too.

When troopers found GB in the car, he was on his phone posting a sex ad on the classified advertising site Backpage. There was another young woman with him. The troopers arrested him, took the phone, and wrote him up on charges of promoting prostitution and related offenses.

But Lehigh County Deputy District Attorney Robert Schopf saw the potential for something more. After further investigation, Schopf amended the charges to include sex trafficking in individuals and geared up for a hard legal fight. Unlike promoting prostitution — often a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, and even if it rises to felony, the maximum sentence is seven years — trafficking adults is always a…

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Liz Brody
OneZero

Journalist. Dog lover. Brooklyn born and raised. National Magazine Award.