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Rebecca Portnoff: A Doctoral Candidate from US Fights Human Trafficking Using Algorithms

Rebecca Portnoff has developed two algorithms aimed to fight human trafficking

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Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp
Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp. VOA
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  • The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads
  • A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts known as wallets at Bitcoin

A U.S. researcher Rebecca Portnoff says that she has developed automated ways to identify links between online sex trafficking ads and the digital currency Bitcoin, techniques that may help locate children being sold for sex.

Law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups could use the methods to investigate Backpage.com, an online classified advertising site where sex ads can be found, according to a statement by the University of California Berkeley, where the research was based.

About 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of human trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation, according to anti-trafficking groups.

Most sex trafficking victims are children, and most are advertised or sold online, according to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report released this year.

Algorithms do the digging

The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads, Rebecca Portnoff, its lead author, said Thursday.

A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts, known as wallets, at Bitcoin, a web-based digital currency that allows money to move quickly and anonymously.

Comparing time stamps of ad purchases on Bitcoin and time stamps and information on Backpage ads could help identify who is paying for them, said Rebecca Portnoff, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in computer science who developed the techniques as part of her dissertation.

“Where previously you might have five different phone numbers that you had no idea were connected when you can see that they all came from the same wallets, that the same person paid for them, that’s a concrete sign that these five phone numbers are all related to each other,” Rebecca Portnoff said.

Rebecca Portnoff added, “I knew this was an issue that law enforcement was especially interested in.”

ALSO READ: Human Trafficking is one of the most derogatory Criminal Activities, should be Nipped in the Bud

Boost for law enforcement

Having automated style and time stamp analyses to identify sex ads by authors and Bitcoin owners is significant, said Damon McCoy, a New York University Tandon School of Engineering assistant professor of computer science and engineering and a co-author of the research.

“Any technique that can surface commonalities between ads and potentially shed light on the owners is a big boost for those working to curb exploitation,” McCoy said in a statement.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said more than 70 percent of the reports it gets of trafficked children involve Backpage, based in Dallas, Texas.

Backpage did not respond to a request for comment.

The findings will be published by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, UC Berkeley said.

It said the work was funded by the Amazon Web Services Cloud Credits for Research Program, the technology, and security firm Giant Oak, Google, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. (VOA)

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Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen Will Be Remembered

Allen was also owner of the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks, and the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team.

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Paul Allen
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at a news conference (from archives). VOA

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who visualized the indispensability of the personal computer more than 40 years ago, died Monday at 65.

Allen’s family said he died in Seattle of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer he had been battling off and on since 2009.

After persuading high school friend Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard in 1975, the two teamed up to develop a rudimentary software that hobbyists used to operate home-built computers.

Microsoft, paul allen
An advertisement is played on a set of large screens at the Microsoft office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S, VOA

“I expect the personal computer to become the kind of thing that people carry with them, a companion that takes notes, does accounting, gives reminders, handles a thousand personal tasks,” Allen wrote in Personal Computing magazine in 1977.

Allen and Gates called their company Microsoft and spent the next several years developing the software that revolutionized the world.

Allen and Gates split in 1983, but Allen kept his share of Microsoft, making him a billionaire.

Gates issued a statement on Allen’s death late Monday.

Paul Allen
Paul Allen in 2003

“I am heartbroken by the passing of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Paul Allen,” he said.

According to Forbes magazine, Allen was worth nearly $22 billion at the time of his death, making him the world’s 44th wealthiest person.

Allen was also owner of the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks, and the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team.

Also Read: Microsoft Cannot Recover Files Deleted By Windows 10 Update

He also used his wealth to refurbish a crumbling neighborhood of his native Seattle, turning it into a headquarters for Amazon. (VOA)