For the past five years, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work and the director of the school’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, has been working with law enforcement authorities in Houston, Las Vegas, and Phoenix (among other places) in combating sex trafficking.
The Business Spectator reports that until recently, Roe-Sepowitz spent much of her time in these investigations diligently copying and pasting suspicious URLs onto a document and then figuring out patterns that could lead to trafficking operations. This year, however, she and her staff have a considerably more effective and pervasive tool at their disposal: Memex.
Memex is a data-mining tool that has been described as a “search engine on steroids.” Developed by the U.S. government (specifically, the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the same agency that developed the Internet), Memex is a powerful search engine that is capable of finding websites and online data that mainstream search engines such as Google and Bing cannot. Rather than just focus on URLs and text, Memex can also search for images and latitude/longitude coordinates embedded in digital photos. The program uses interactive displays and infographics that connect various pieces of data together, enabling users to find out exactly when, where, and to what extent online content was posted.
These capabilities give law enforcement a formidable advantage in its investigations of cyber crime. An agency with the program could, for example, look up a name and phone number from an online ad it considers suspect. Memex can find other sites that have the same information, and with it the date, time, and place they were posted. It also has the ability to search for handwritten numbers and text within photos, a tactic many sex traffickers and other criminals use for concealing information.
Memex can also look up and index background images in order to link up similar-looking photos. In doing so, law enforcement can get a better idea of where, and by whom, ostensibly unrelated photos were taken. This is a tactic used in the fight against sex trafficking.
Perhaps most impressive of all is Memex’s considerable breadth of coverage in the World Wide Web. Memex can search for content not just in the “mainstream” Internet but also the “deep web,” which, according to the International Business Times, denotes content not yet indexed by Google and other search engines (typically internal databases, forums, and government sites), as well as the “dark web,” which includes sites that require special software for access. No one is quite sure just how much of the entire Internet has been indexed. Estimates range from 0.04% to 76%, which, obviously, are dubious at best, and considering mainstream search engines process 100 billion requests every month, the total number of websites could be astronomical.
Memex was created by Christopher White, a Harvard-educated engineer working for DARPA. White claims that Memex can be used for a variety of web investigations but that sex trafficking was considered a priority by the Defense Department due to its funneling of funds into other criminal activity such as drug trafficking and terrorism. He is hopeful that Memex can expand to other applications.
However, not everyone shares White’s enthusiasm for Memex and its implications. Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., expresses concern about the software’s ability to mine vast amounts of private and public information indiscriminately. “The question that moves in the background is how much of this is actually lawful,” he said.
White claims that in order to alleviate these concerns, he designed Memex to strictly index publicly available information, including those found in the deep and dark webs. He is cognizant of the possibility, however, that Memex can be tweaked by independent users to index private information as well.
Regardless, White and his colleagues continue to test and expand Memex. They hope that it can be used for other law enforcement purposes, such as going after money laundering, drug trafficking, and terrorist organizations.