FaceSearch at work. Image courtesy of Marinus Analytics.

In 2013, the Pittsburgh-based startup Marinus Analytics released Traffic Jam, an online platform designed to help law enforcement officials track down sex traffickers and their victims.

“The problem was that technology has made it easier for traffickers to do what they do, but yet law enforcement was being left behind,” says Marinus Analytics founder and CEO Emily Kennedy, who came up with Traffic Jam while working on her senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.

Since then, Marinus Analytics has worked with more than 75 law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices across the U.S. and Canada, including the FBI. To date, Kennedy claims that Traffic Jam has played a role in recovering more than 120 human trafficking victims. (It’s no wonder Marinus Analytics made our list of 17 Pittsburgh tech companies to watch in 2017.)

Now Kennedy and her team have enhanced Traffic Jam with FaceSearch, the first facial recognition tool developed to make sex trafficking investigations faster and more accurate.

“Facial recognition has been something that’s been requested of us by law enforcement from day one, so we’re so excited to finally be able to offer it in a way that’s really practical and easy to use,” says Kennedy.

Used in combination with Traffic Jam’s existing search tools, FaceSearch allows investigators to compare a photo of a missing person with internet ads created to attract customers for commercial sex. If a match is made, data connected to the ad can provide clues to the victim’s location.

Emily Kennedy presents at the 2015 UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge. Photo by Erika Gidley.

Before FaceSearch, law enforcement who used Traffic Jam still had to spend long periods of time scouring thousands of ads.

“They would literally tape a photo of the person to the side of their computer and then just go through every single ad one by-one,” Kennedy says of one Marinus client.

She adds that FaceSearch could cut the hours- or days-long process down to a few minutes, depending on the case.

Resources like Traffic Jam have become especially crucial as law enforcement struggles to keep up with traffickers supplying victims for what is essentially a global, multi-billion dollar industry. Last year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 5,551 reports of sex trafficking in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, the number of sexually exploited people runs into the millions (a 2014 report from the International Labour Organization puts it at 4.5 million).

However, a recent report from the U.S. State Department counted only 18,930 prosecutions and 6,609 convictions connected to global trafficking in 2015.

DeliverFund, a nonprofit, private intelligence firm dedicated to stopping human trafficking, started using Traffic Jam in 2016. The platform allowed the organization to keep tabs on Backpage.com, a free classifieds site accused of facilitating child sex trafficking through its adult ad section.

DeliverFund founder and executive director, Nic McKinley, believes the addition of FaceSearch will enable law enforcement to find those most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, mainly runaways, foster kids and missing children.

“There has never been a way to look for them efficiently, until now,” says McKinley, adding that FaceSearch has the potential to “revolutionize law enforcement’s ability to find and rescue these victims.”

To further combat the problem, Kennedy plans to make Traffic Jam more widely available to law enforcement agencies and organizations outside of North America.

“Western Europe is an easy place to start and we know there is a lot of advertising going on there,” says Kennedy.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.