This story requires our BI Prime membership. To read the full article,
simply click here to claim your deal and get access to all exclusive Business Insider PRIME content.
- Emil Mikhailov, founder of XIX, a computer vision startup, and Nic McKinley, founder of Deliver Fund, a nonprofit started by an ex-CIA agent, have teamed up to use AI to fight human trafficking.
- Deliver Fund uses XIX’s technology to scan and analyze massive numbers of online images to identify and expose sex trafficking rings. The XIX platform looks for “signals” in the photos — visual elements that suggest a link to the illicit sex trade.
- “Human traffickers oftentimes will brand their victims as property,” McKinley, who has been dubbed “the Real Jack Ryan” in a documentary, told Business Insider.
- Deliver Fund will use XIX’s platform while working with law enforcement agencies in the upcoming Super Bowl weekend in Miami. The Super Bowl typically leads to an uptick in sex trafficking activity in the city where it is to be held, creating opportunities for law enforcers to identify them.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
One is ex-CIA, dubbed the ‘real Jack Ryan, who’s looking to stamp out modern-day slavery. The other, a tech entrepreneur from Moscow who hopes to deploy AI for noble causes.
Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of Deliver Fund, a Dallas nonprofit dedicated to fighting human trafficking, and Emil Mikhailov, founder and CEO of XIX, a San Francisco AI computer vision startup, have teamed up for an unconventional use of artificial intelligence: battling human trafficking.
McKinley’s exploits as a CIA field agent were highlighted in a 2018 Vice News documentary which dubbed him “The Real Jack Ryan,” referring to the fictional CIA analyst and operative in a popular TV series. (He says “the real Jack Ryan character doesn’t exist, because you’re either an operative or an analyst. You’re not both.”)
Deliver Fund uses XIX’s AI-powered software to gather intelligence on criminal rings in a $100 billion global industry that coerces people to work in the illicit sex trade or other forms of forced labor. The partnership underscores how AI, now known mainly either as a powerful business tool or an Orwellian weapon against dissidents, is also being deployed by startups and advocacy groups against crime and exploitation.
In fact, Deliver Fund, working with law enforcers and using the XIX’s platform, is gearing up for an event that’s known to spark an uptick in sex trafficking: The Super Bowl, slated to be held on Feb. 2 in Miami.
“We’re taking all the skills that we’ve learned in the fight against terrorism and applying that to the fight against human trafficking here in the United States,” McKinley told Business Insider.
For Mikhailov, sharing the XIX technology with McKinley’s team is not about making money. “We don’t sell it to Deliver Fund,” he said. “We do it for free.”
Using AI to scan trafficking images
They’re also applying XIX’s AI-powered platform, which is able to quickly scan and analyze information on the web, specifically photos and images posted on social networks, porn and other sites where traffickers are known to look for customers.
“Those are very explicit imagery,” Mikhailov told Business Insider. The XIX platform, he said, scans for “signals,” or visual elements on images that are known to be associated with trafficking.
“Human trafficking has its own featured signals, meaning specific attributes,” he said.
McKinley cited one example, tattoos.
“Human traffickers oftentimes will brand their victims as property,” he said. “If you have a victim who has, say, a tattoo of a crown on her face and her trafficker’s name tattooed right underneath it, we’ll have the algorithm that can go out and find every other photo within the system that has that crown on it.”
Deliver Fund shares the information they collect through the XIX platform and other methods with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
Their efforts have led to some dramatic successes. In 2018, they helped rescue a young woman in the southwest who was betrayed by a boyfriend by turning her over to a sex trafficker, who subjected her to horrific abuse. The girl escaped and went to the police who sought Deliver Fund’s help in hunting down her traffickers. With the help of the XIX platform, Deliver Fund found them in days.
“A few days later, a SWAT team kicked in his front door and arrested him and freed the other girls that were in his custody,” McKinley said.
A ‘centralized brain’ to fight human trafficking
A former CIA special agent and US Air Force pararescue instructor, McKinley said he launched Deliver Fund in 2014 after realizing a huge gap in the federal government’s capabilities in fighting trafficking, McKinley said.
While there’s a federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), dedicated to fighting the illicit use and sale of alcohol, tobacco and firearms, which are legal commodities, no such infrastructure exists to fight a worse, and totally illegal activity, human trafficking, he said.
“We have an entire government bureaucracy around fighting the illicit use and sale” of alcohol, tobacco and firearms, McKinley said. “You know, 100% of human trafficking is illegal, yet we don’t have a single centralized brain for fighting the issue.”
He started Deliver Fund with other veterans of the military and intelligence services, including the Navy SEALs and the National Security Agency.
“We equip, train and advise law enforcement and regulatory authorities for their fight against human trafficking,” he said. “We’re able to do that because most of us are coming from an intelligence background.”
‘Okay, there’s something new here’
The Vice documentary on McKinley mentioned Deliver Fund’s work which caught Mikhailov’s attention. He was intrigued, thinking, “This is a very important problem to work on, interesting from a technological perspective.”
He emailed McKinley who quickly became impressed with XIX’s technology. “I get hit up by companies routinely wanting us to use their technologies,” he said. “I saw what he was actually doing. I was like, ‘Okay, there’s something new here that I haven’t seen before that we actually desperately need.”
What was new was XIX’s ability to analyze fast and on a massive scale images associated with sex trafficking. “They had cracked the nut on data collection and computer visualization coming through on the same platform,” he said. “That was something we really needed.”
The XIX platform was particularly effective in analyzing online advertisements for purportedly legal services, such as massages or escorts and sex chats, but which sex traffickers use to find customers.
“At the end of the day, the commercial sex advertisement is a starting point,” he said. “It’s not enough just to look at a commercial sex advertisement and and say, ‘I believe this is human trafficking.’ When you can start connecting those advertisements with other data coming out of social media or other databases, that’s the true magic.”
Other tools are able make those connections using text-based AI, he said. “But if you have a trafficker on Instagram, and he’s just posting an Instagram photo, and there’s no text, well, that becomes irrelevant data to those other platforms.”
He said Mikhailov’s team figured out how to “pull metadata that we’d never seen anybody pulling before and be able to use their algorithms to connect advertisements that we’d never seen anybody able to connect before.”
Deliver Fund has also tried other tools that rely only on facial recognition technology, which is now commonly used by some law enforcement agencies in the search for known victims, McKinley said.
But “a lot of the human trafficking victims have their faces covered or blurred out, because the traffickers are on to the fact that law enforcement is using facial recognition,” he said. “Facial recognition doesn’t work in those instances.”
Because it’s able to analyze more elements of an image beyond a person’s face, the XIX platform has proven to be a more powerful tool, giving Deliver Fund the ability to “pull other things out and connect them across platforms.”
Sex trafficking at the Super Bowl
The XIX platform has proven to be a critical tool in what has turned into an annual major anti-trafficking operation.
As fans of the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs gear up for Super Bowl LIV in Miami, McKinley’s team will be working with law enforcement agencies, to take on a loathsome fallout from the yearly football showdown: sex trafficking.
“Wherever a Super Bowl or a large sporting event in particular is being held, it attracts a large number of people who are there for something more than the event itself,” McKinley said.
He used a military analogy to explain why the Super Bowl is an opportune time to target sex traffickers. “If you’re in Afghanistan, and you have snipers on a hillside, you’re not going to see them until they move, then that’s when you see them. The Super Bowl is the incentive for these traffickers to move. And so it allows us to identify them.”
The Super Bowl anti-trafficking operations actually highlighted the effectiveness of the XIX platform. The startup was not involved in the 2018 Super Bowl operation in Minneapolis which led to the arrest or identification of about 40 traffickers, McKinley said.
But XIX became part of the anti-trafficking operation’s arsenal in the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta. The platform helped Deliver Fund and law enforcers identify and build cases on 50 sex traffickers. More importantly, they were able to do so faster and with fewer staff.
“That’s the beauty of the XIX platform, is it reduces the man-hours needed to build one of these cases,” McKinley said.
Ultimately, operations similar to the ones conducted in connection with the Super Bowl are just a small part of a bigger and longer campaign, McKinley said.
The business of human trafficking
Human trafficking, which rakes in about $100 billion to $150 billion a year according to some estimates, is such a huge, global problem that it cannot be solved just by taking down individual traffickers.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. To have a meaningful impact, he said, they need to focus on the tools and institutions used by the traffickers, such as banks and hotel chains.
Major human trafficking rings typically rely on banks and hotels to operate. Greg Switzer, vice president of Deliver Fund’s commercial operations, said the organizations is also working with and sharing information on confirmed human trafficking groups with major financial institutions and hotels that may be inadvertently offering services to criminal organizations.
“They may be looking for a tool that meets some regulatory compliance needs,” he told Business Insider. “They may want to protect their company from brand damage once association is made with their products and services involved with human trafficking.”
McKinley said Deliver Fund has helped open money laundering investigations on 20 suspected human trafficking organizations.
“The way that we’re going to solve this problem,” he said, is to “permanently disrupt this market.”
“If a human trafficker can’t rent a hotel room, if they can’t rent a car, if they can’t open a bank account, then you know how difficult we just made it for them to make money,” McKinley said.
For Mikhailov, working with Deliver Fund, while not a money-making partnership, has been valuable in terms of developing its technology and defining the startup’s direction.
Working with McKinley’s team has given his team an opportunity to develop XIX’s computer vision technology based on a real-world dynamic application. The startup, which has raised $2 million from angel investors, aims to be a leading AI-powered computer vision platform.
One of their first investors is Arjun Bansal, founder of the AI startup Nervana, which was acquired by Intel in 2016 and who recently launched a new AI startup, XOKind.
“Purely from a social good aspect, that’s amazing what they’re doing,” Bansal told Business Insider. “I’m really happy as an investor to support that kind of work. With this product, it’s always about keeping yourself open to finding where the product market fit is going to happen. So I think that continuing to explore that in a bunch of different domains and I think the outcome that they’ve seen with this engagement is really, really great.”
XIX does have paying clients. One is a company that uses the tool to filter out “not-safe-for-work” images on its site. Another client is a fintech company that uses the tool to verify account holders to comply with anti-money laundering regulations.
AI for social good
XIX is a rare example of a startup deploying AI for social causes. Another is Hatebase, a Toronto-based startup which uses AI to monitor hate speech online, which has been used by the Sentinel Project, a nonprofit to assist vulnerable communities that are potential targets of violence and genocide. In 2017, the Sentinel Project, which is based in Canada, used other tools, including a heat map, to monitor false reports that a gang was about to attack some slum communities in Kenya.
Working with McKinley’s team also speaks to how Mikhailove hopes to build XIX as an AI company.
AI has also been used by federal agencies, such as ICE, or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to hunt down undocumented immigrants and refugees. Mikhailov said it’s an area that his startup hopes to avoid. “It’s not something that we feel comfortable with,” he said.
Mikhailov also hopes XIX can go beyond the typical business uses of AI is now commonly deployed to generate leads or sales faster and more effectively.
XIX is aiming higher, Mikhailov said. His big hope for XIX, he said, is to “actually build a metric that translates to saving lives.”
Got a tip about XIX or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email email@example.com, message him on Twitter@benpimentelor send him a secure message through Signal at (510) 731-8429.You can alsocontact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.