Crowdsourcing a Database of Hotel Rooms

There's an app that allows people to submit photographs of hotel rooms around the world into a centralized database. The idea is that photographs of victims of human trafficking are often taken in hotel rooms, and the database will help law enforcement find the traffickers.

I can't speak to the efficacy of the database -- in particular, the false positives -- but it's an interesting crowdsourced approach to the problem.

Posted on June 27, 2016 at 6:05 AM • 44 Comments

Comments

BernardJune 27, 2016 7:06 AM

Dear Bruce,
I fear that you have spelt interesting wrongly. It is an idiotic non-solution to a grossly overstated problem

This database of photos will only prove that the taker was in a particular place at a certain time. It will inevitably be used by the likes of the FBI and others to add to the tracking and surveillance of even more people. It will do nothing to help those unfortunate victims who actually are trafficked.

Small Town Metropolitan June 27, 2016 7:42 AM

Long term solution is to create a true and universal 'community' sense using all tools available. Short term countermeasures are a management cycle rather than permanent solution. Vacuums of social norms should not be acceptable - privacy rights are not applicable to anti-social activities.

Miguel FarahJune 27, 2016 7:52 AM

I don't want to sound like a dick, but I think the rate of false positives will be too high, to the point of uselessness - rooms in cheap hotel chains (think M6 or S8) are pretty much just like each other everywhere.

RobJune 27, 2016 8:12 AM

Miguel, my thoughts exactly. I do a fair bit of low-budget travel around Europe and stay in low-end motel type rooms. Many's the time I've (half-)woken up, looked around the room and thought 'Where the heck am I today?'. Even the language on the accessories such as room heaters or hair dryers can't always be trusted.

blakeJune 27, 2016 8:56 AM

Devil's advocate: Bruce didn't say that it was "good", only that it was "interesting", and instead of "solution", "approach".

For example, the Brexit is "interesting" and an "approach". (Well, "approach" in the sense that an "acceleration" can relate to a decrease in speed.)

DanielJune 27, 2016 9:18 AM

As reddit users have proved time and time again crowd sourced investigations always get their man. ;-)

I'm in the camp that this is crowd sourced surveillance with "sex trafficking" allowing people trade off their privacy in exchange for feeling empathetic towards people they perceive as vulnerable.

fajensenJune 27, 2016 9:30 AM

Good Luck with the likes of Sofitel, IBIS and Comfort Inn. The McD's of hotelling.

Same rooms, same furniture and fixtures, same carpets, same room layout, same colouring scheme, same stuff in the minibar and the very same channels on TeeVee - everywhere in the world. Each hotel chain is like a separate dimensional fold in the multiverse.

When I did a lot of traveling with work, I often had a hard time remembering which country I was sleeping in.

BrotherChewJune 27, 2016 9:45 AM

fajensen, all: When traffickers sell their "wares" I would assume they'd have to include at least a vague sense of geographic proximity. "Southern Thailand", or "Atlanta", or whatever. Identifying that their slave's picture was taken in a Comfort Inn somewhere in or around Detroit I think would be valuable to an investigator. They could start to narrow down from thousands of possible hotels to maybe a dozen. It's certainly not a perfect solution, but would provide a basis for further investigation work.

paulJune 27, 2016 11:10 AM

Even knowing the hotel chain gets you a substantial improvement, especially since hotel chains whose rooms are identified will have their own incentives not to be known as facilitating trafficking.

ZJune 27, 2016 11:20 AM

My primary criticism would be aimed at the work/reward of the project. Well intended, indeed, but the second the database becomes robust/reliable enough to become a real threat will be the same second that traffickers decide to throw a wrench in the works.

It would be rather easy to change the practice by which photos are taken (very vague or even artificial backgrounds). And as we see, time and time again, these international criminal organizations tend to be very nimble.

I think strategies employed by such efforts/apps need to rely upon properties which are more inherent in the operational aspect of such organizations.

Clive RobinsonJune 27, 2016 11:37 AM

@ Rob, fajensen,

Many's the time I've (half-)woken up, looked around the room and thought 'Where the heck am I today?'

You've both had a very comman experience, and it ranges from the mild 'this is not my bed' through to full on amnesia, which I've had from flying the wrong way around the globe stopping off for a day or two work in five different countries... Oddly you'd think you don't panic and that's a good thing, as one of a couple of things happen, the first you think 'nuts' --or less polite equivalent-- and go back to sleep, make a drink or just start your usuall morning routine and your memory comes back. Or in better class hotels you can play Sherlock. If you look in the desk there is usually a pad of hotel note paper telling you where you are. If that does not jog your mind, have a look on the outside of the door for your room number and phone reception and say "This is room XXX are there any messages?", they usually say "I'm sorry Mr xxxx no messages" thus you now know your name, If it's a young lady on the phone ask what the time is and ask what time breakfast starts (if it's a bloke then that will usually be 'night service'). Usually by this time your head is back to some semblance of normal.

The "International Hotels" are quite used to people temporarily forgetting who they are as a concequence of jet lag etc, and make it easy on you.

Clive RobinsonJune 27, 2016 11:52 AM

@ Bernard,

It will inevitably be used by the likes of the FBI and others to add to the tracking and surveillance of even more people.

Actualy Mossad are known for taking pictures of hotel rooms, and collecting hotel keys etc and filling them away for wet work and the like.

They also have insiders or do "black bag" jobs on a very small number of architects, that specialize in building, converting and remodeling hotels, to get not just floor plans but utility ducts etc information. They also like to know what "guest systems" are in use and how to get information off of them without the hotels knowing. Obviously the bigger the hotel chain the easier this is.

I assume other IC orgs/agencies do likewise, as the more information you have up front about a location the better prepared you are.

Thus from an OpSec point of view low budget non chain "mom&pop" style B&Bs are a better bet, especially if they have "TV Room / Lounges" and the like.

JdLJune 27, 2016 1:29 PM

I see that the organizations obsessed with "human trafficking" are still trying to find something - anything - that will turn up a single "victim" rather than young women voluntarily choosing prostitution as a way to make a living.

Clive RobinsonJune 27, 2016 2:18 PM

@ JdL,

... rather than young women voluntarily choosing prostitution as a way to make a living.

Whilst there may be a few who do chose to go into escort / sex working "voluntarily", I suspect for the majority of those they would rather do other work for the same level of reward. Thus you have to question what you mean by "voluntarily"

What however is most definatly true in Europe and I suspect many other places is that young women have been trafficked. They have in the past answered adverts for what is bar work, or other non/low/semi skilled work via what appear to be legitimate agencies. However they end up disappearing into the sex industry with out choice.

Such is the nature of the world and criminal organisations such as the various Russian Mafia and similar Chinese Tong/Triad organisations.

Whilst people say prostitution might be the oldest proffession in the world, the criminals around it have been there almost as long.

Just Passin' ThruJune 27, 2016 3:02 PM

I agree with @Paul...

Many hotels now have videocam recordings, where if you know which hotels to look at, you can possibly get perp photos, esp. if the original photos are time-stamped. And, more hotels add cameras as time goes on. IIRC, Sofitel Paris has such cameras.

QnJ1Y2UJune 27, 2016 4:09 PM

@JdL
are still trying to find something - anything - that will turn up a single "victim"
Your claim is that there are no victims of human trafficking, anywhere? That's in the same pathetic category as Holocaust denial.

ianfJune 27, 2016 4:22 PM


@ Just passing'… (you gone already?)

Many hotels now have videocam recordings…

CCTV in the vestibule/ corridors/ etc other public areas, not in the hotel rooms proper – or any such establishment soon would find itself without customers, if not liable to legal suits over invasion of privacy and worse. So your whole argument is moot (take that! Wesley Parish!).

    Anyway, why are we still discussing this brain-dead app… which I agree is interesting, but only in a daft kind of way: some budding programmer in St. Louis got a few mental yobs to pony up a couple of thousand dollars for a bleeding "social app" that's supposed to abet the local police (and the FBI at large) in identifying specific hotel rooms that previously MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN used by known human traffickers to photograph their traffickées. Given millions of hotel rooms, someone here with a better grasp of probability theory should do the math and quash further deliberations over formal usability of that concept. Face it: it's not a solution, it's YA startup going nowhere fast.

HarryJune 27, 2016 5:01 PM

@Clive Robinson: "They also have insiders or do "black bag" jobs on a very small number of architects, that specialize in building, converting and remodeling hotels, to get not just floor plans but utility ducts etc information."

As you probably know, they did something like this to prep for the raid on Entebbe. Turned out the airport was designed and/or constructed by an Israeli-associated company which was willing to hand over blueprints.


@Bernard: "a grossly overstated problem"

I long for the day when what you say is true. The vast majority of trafficked females end up in either involuntary sex work or household labor. The younger the female, the more likely it's sex work. Here's one source, that took me about 30 seconds to find, taking care to choose an obviously reliable source:
http://www.northeastern.edu/humantrafficking/wp-content/uploads/cshti0810.pdf


@JdL: "I see that the organizations obsessed with "human trafficking" are still trying to find something - anything - that will turn up a single "victim" rather than young women voluntarily choosing prostitution as a way to make a living."

Here's an article from Der Spiegel on the subject, including the fact that legalized prostitution hasn't stopped human sex trafficking. Here's one example, that took me about 20 seconds to find:
http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/human-trafficking-persists-despite-legality-of-prostitution-in-germany-a-902533-3.html

TerenceJune 27, 2016 5:07 PM

Word of advice: if you're going to upload photos of your hotel room to a website designed to piss off human trafficking mafias, make sure you purge the exif data and anonymize your web connection.

DanielJune 27, 2016 6:09 PM

@Harry

An obviously reliable source? I wouldn't call a source whose business model requires them to terrorize Congress critters in order to receive funding a reliable source.

But even if we assume that data to be true the very first chart shows the cumulative number of incidents. That means in a three year period there were less than 2000 sex trafficking investigations opened among a society of 300+ million people.

The FBI likes to measure crime by crimes per minute. So, for example, there is one murder every 36 minutes and one rape every 6 minutes.

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/standard-links/national-data

By the same token, for reference, there was one sex trafficking offense investigated once every 720 minutes by their own data. Looked at another way, the FBI opened sex traffic investigations twice a day in a country covering hundreds of millions of people.

So yes, I think that more than qualifies--as the other poster said--as a problem vastly overstated.

StevenJune 27, 2016 7:19 PM

There was a case some years back where the FBI had a photo of a victim in a hotel room, but didn't know what hotel it was. They put the picture out on the internet (with the victim removed) and asked if anyone recognized the room. Someone ID'd it pretty quickly. I think it was a Disney property. The victim was long gone, of course, but it gave them a lead.

SteveJune 27, 2016 11:04 PM

While I have no opinion on the efficacy of this program (my guess is that it's probably negligible), human trafficking is not a "grossly overstated problem." UNICEF estimates that 5.5 million children are being trafficked in one form or another, including prostitution, pornography, and sweatshop labor. Even assuming that the figure is overblown by, say, a factor of five, that's a not insignificant amount of suffering.

DroneJune 28, 2016 4:52 AM

@Harry: When you said, "...taking care to choose an obviously reliable source:", I looked at your source and almost choked with laughter! If you think anything coming out of the current administration's hyper-politicized, hyper-biased U.S. Department of Justice is an "obviously reliable source", you've got more than one screw loose pal.

Mic StandJune 28, 2016 7:35 AM

How droll that 'Drone' came here to post exactly what someone else had already said.
Perhaps someone called 'Me Too' could care to comment? (No evidence required: just fart your brains into the text entry box.)

qwertyuiopJune 28, 2016 8:40 AM

@Daniel: I suspect that all your statistics prove is that sex-trafficking is - predictably - grossly under-reported compared to murder or rape.

In cases of murder there is (usually) a body, witness(es) and/or people who realise the victim has disappeared and so can initiate an investigation.

In cases of rape there is a victim who can report the crime provided s/he isn't too traumatised, or too ashamed because of cultural/social pressures, or fear that they will be blamed ("she was drunk", "she was provocatively dressed"). We know that rape is an under-reported crime anyway.

But in the case of sex-trafficking who is going to report the crime? The victim certainly isn't because she (it's usually she) is completely under the control of the trafficker and has no opportunity. The person who buys sex with her probably won't report it: he may not realise she has been trafficked, he may not care, he may be worried about the consequences for himself (violence from the trafficker, shame/embarrassment at admitting he buys sex). So who is going to report it?

Crime statistics can only report known crime, there is a lot more crime (of all types) which goes uncounted.

DanielJune 28, 2016 9:21 AM

@qwertyuiop

That response proves too much because there is no reason to suspect that rape, for example, is any less under reported than sex trafficking. But even it were true, we are still left with the reality that all we can do is impute data, which is fancy way of saying "guessing".

So if one wants to qualify my statement to say that sex trafficking is overblown as a matter of public concern based upon known data, I won't argue. I'd simply state that if the problem is worse than it appears then the burden of proof is on those people who make such claims to produce the evidence that such claims are true.

CallMeLateForSupperJune 28, 2016 10:02 AM

"Snapping a picture inside your hotel room could help protect children across the globe."

(groan) "the children" yet again.

Interesting idea. Has a more worthy objective than most crowdsourcing I've read about.

THat said, how about this: "Snapping a picture inside your hotel room could put you on law enforcement's radar." We noticed the date you were there and would like to know Why you were there. Who was there with you? What did you do there? Did you happen to notice anyone who had hairy palms? Jeez-loo-weez..... just accept the effing photos and leave me alone.

Jarrod FratesJune 28, 2016 11:45 AM

@Steven:

Matthew Mancuso was identified as the assailant in 2005, having adopted a Russian girl and brought her to the US at the age of 5, apparently specifically for the purpose of making child porn. The hotel was identified as the Port Orleans Hotel at Disney World.

Jim Van ZandtJune 28, 2016 12:22 PM

Rather than starting a new site for this single purpose, it would seem better to make some arrangement with a travel site so that pictures of hotel rooms get flagged and are searchable. Surely travelers vastly outnumber trafficking victims, perpetrators, and investigators, and they could more easily support the infrastructure.

But I expect it will still be hard to get good coverage. For comparison, there's an app that tracks public toilets. You can consult it for pointers and/or submit information for a new toilet you find. That would appear to be easier to support, but I've found its coverage to be disappointing.

ianfJune 29, 2016 4:54 AM


Reports @Clive Robinson (cc: @ Bernard)

Mossad are known for taking pictures of hotel rooms, and collecting hotel keys etc and filling them away for wet work and the like.

I don't know how Clive came to possess that v. much correct intel, but on my own—not disclosing how I came into mine either—I can add that the Mossad and other Israeli secret police agencies have special teams of global hotel room photographing agents, posing as ordinary tourists, and usually traveling in his-and-her pairs in order to not awake suspicion of local counter-intel agencies. Upon arrival in the geo-target of their preset itinerary, they move frequently between hotels, and even between rooms on different floors of the same hotel (their signature trick is to complain to the Admissions Desk over something not being in working order in the room they've initially been assigned to, like the TV, or the hairdryer, or wishing for a better view, etc – of course only after first having photographed and measured the room thoroughly). They travel the world in a seemingly haphazard fashion so as not to be detected by any security computer efforts to spot suspicious routine serial-travel patterns etc. They frequently change appeara[n]ces, gender, and use ever new passports extracted from dedicated dead mail drops (often in secluded Episcopalian cemeteries) previously filled by the chauffeur from the Israeli Embassy. If you're a frequent flyer/ hotel-steader, chances—nay! near certainty—are you've rubbed shoulders with those shady characters.

    The assembled picture data are then hardcore-encrypted using specially IDF-mil.spec-modified algorithms on an proprietary energy-gaped HW encoder that masquerades as a ordinary charger, then SneakerNet-fed into their seemingly ordinary, but secretly hardened, laptop for upload in a form indistinguishable from random packet noise to innocent-sounding, but in reality of course Israeli-controlled, third party servers. Hashed stream checksums are then converted to high-redundancy QR codes which are Polaroid-printed, then surreptitiously glued to festival, etc posters in predefined public places where chauffeurs from the Embassies can air-gapingly recapture them. Can't say more than that, or I may risk becoming a Person of Interest to their Wet Works Department.


@ Harry,

@Clive: "[The Mossad] "also have insiders or do "black bag" jobs on a very small number of architects, that specialize in building, converting and remodeling hotels, to get not just floor plans but utility ducts etc information."

    they did something like this to prep for the raid on Entebbe. Turned out the airport was designed and/or constructed by an Israeli-associated company which was willing to hand over blueprints.

Here Clive's intel is logical, but by and large outdated. Having conducted a cost-benefit analysis of these procedures, the Mossad Accounting dept.—they're always the worst!—concluded it being inefficient in terms of return on allocated resources, and suggested a redirection of approach: so now, instead of going after ever so tame but highly dispersed architects doing hotel remodeling, they simply bribe lowly clerks in building permission-issuing offices around the globe for current copies of floor plans of such establishments. Neat, isn't it? (Ordinary Israeli taxpayers seem pleased).

As for the prep for Entebbe, it went far deeper than what you alleged: not only was the airport designed and built by Israelis, but their Air Force actually ran and schooled the Ugandans in its operations, and thus had the layout of the place pretty much down pat even had it been built by, say, the Chinese. Furthermore, they did that just-in-case a full decade in advance of the hijacking, as were they able to see into the future (which, suspecting the worst, they probably can – that's how they take over the world; Wesley has the details).


Onto a different subtopic-within-the-topic @ QnJ1Y2U,

    You need to unhitch that Holocaust pony from your Metaphors wagon and return it p.e.r.m.a.n.e.n.t.l.y to the stables of Clio, the muse of history. Then go stand in the sophomoron shame corner for a fortnight.

Advodka(t)June 29, 2016 7:31 AM

@ianf

Any suggestions for reading more this? Also wetwork in general (without tom clancy stories).

Clive RobinsonJune 29, 2016 9:12 AM

@ Advodka(t),

Also wetwork in general (without tom clancy stories).

It was a euphemism used by the KGB and various Russian "illegals" for operations where "blood" is expected to be spilled. They however did not originate the term, it was used back as early as the late 1700's (depending on who you ask) and was used as a way of describing a crime of robbery etc where blood was likely to be shed (like forcibly getting a safe combination etc).

However in the west the term "wetwork" has come to mean rather more in the IC than just assasination, murder and brutal persuasion, it now includes kidnapping torture etc. Basically any hostile HumInt activity involving an unwilling mark or target. Often such work is not carried out by "Intel Officers" but by "contractors" or "freelancers" such that there is a sufficient deniability gap.

There are a number of cases that have been documented where Mossad have been identified. However there are also cases where Russia has been involved (they actually have laws for extrajudicial execution etc). And the US has "Find fix and Finish" technology which you would use mainly for wetwork.

The stages involved are usually little different than for any other intel op. The main difference is the exfiltration phase, in that it is assumed during planning that the operatives are going to be fugitives in that jurisdiction.

Unless you want to know some very specific details on some of the actual techniques involved there is not much more to say.

If you think you might become a mark for some reason, then other than the first rule of "always remain invisable". You would be looking at either standard VIP "anti-kidnap" training, or how to build a legand and how to step into it, which is taught to undercover officers and those in witness protection etc. If you do need a legend, then the sooner you start the easier it is to step into when you have to. However the OpSec involved with running two identities in parallel is not easy, which is why under cover operatives are "immersed" some time befor "operations commence". Generally the younger the operative the easier it is to establish a legend.

Oddly you only need one official document to do this which is a "birth certificate", having obtained a legitimate one, getting a passport and then a driving licence is enough to get what else you need. As has been pointed out in the past and is currently in the UK news today, Frederick Forsyth wrote almost all you need to know about getting a birth certificate in "The day of the Jackal" back in 1971. The "loop hole" still exists fourry five years later and was used by UK Met Police Undercover Officers to establish legends that allowed them to not just form relationships but also father children with "actavists/protestors" they were actively investigating. As some one in the upper levels of the Met Hierarchy was heard to remark "This is a lot more than deciding who gets custody of the cat"....

Last year Frederick Forsyth made claims that he had worked for the UK SiS (MI6) often simply called "The service". He would not be the first author and certainly will not be the last to have worked for the service, much of their work is almost identical to that of an investigative journalist, thus writing is their stock in trade as is pulling together plot lines --analysis-- from disparate pieces of information.

Freezing_in_BrazilJune 29, 2016 9:19 AM

Less intrusive and more to-the-point way would be having the hotel owners to do the job of photographing the rooms for themselves. It could even be mandated by law.

Freezing_in_BrazilJune 29, 2016 9:30 AM

Adding:

Of course each room would have some coded graphic [a la QR code] hanging on the wall(s). That would do away with the budget hotel visual uniformity.

Advodka(t)June 29, 2016 11:05 AM

@Clive Robinson

Thank you, i will try to find more although my google fu isnt really up to date, (especially with regards to this subject google is giving me alot of fud)

ianfJune 29, 2016 2:18 PM


@ Advodka(t) “Any suggestions for reading more this?”

Define: “this.”

Clive Robinson apparently can (be bothered to) read your mind, but I'm not that clever.

Also wet work in general

Literal translation of Russian expression 'mokryie dela' which colloquially stands for the dirty works department [Executive Action Department V ] of the KGB (and encompasses even that of GRU, the military intelligence agency). Dirty, as in beyond the pale of mere intelligence gathering/ spying. Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia page on KGB carries no mention of any such directorate or department… ah, well, incomplete and editable by everybody.


@ Bumble Bee

In Swedish they call that flateri.

Define: that.

Define: flateri (no such word in Swedish).


@ Freezing_in_Brazil “Less intrusive and more to-the-point way would be having the hotel owners to do the job of photographing the rooms for themselves. It could even be mandated by law.

Of course each room would have some coded graphic [a la QR code] hanging on the wall(s). That would do away with the budget hotel visual uniformity.

Less obnoxious, except to hotel owners perhaps. Yeah, let's make this into a law of global reach and proportions, then build up local, state, federal, intercontinental, and UN structures to ensure compliance on the threat of staggering financial penalties and ultimately jail terms. And once it's working we can proceed to mandate the same for homeowners/ occupiers/ renters in abodes made up of more than, say, 2 rooms? Why should they be free to take pictures of potential trafficking victims in the privacy of own homes?


@ Advodka(t) […] “especially with regards to this subject google is giving me a lot of fud

Define: this subject, which I assume was different from previous instance of same.

It does? Provide samples of "your google's" fud – could you be meaning "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt?" If so—respect, 'cause my google never gives me more than what I asked for.

Markus OttelaJune 30, 2016 2:20 AM

Note to the next Snowden: It's no longer just the Mira hotel the curtains of which need covering.

Freezing_in_BrazilJune 30, 2016 10:05 AM

@ianf

Less obnoxious, except to hotel owners perhaps.

I never said I like the solution, but if somebody has to pay, let it be the owner.

Yeah, let's make this into a law of global reach and proportions, then build up local, state, federal, intercontinental, and UN structures (...)

Or better yet: just leave to the innocent Ibis hotel guest in Paris the burden of proving why and how he was not the trafficker at the identical room at a London Ibis at the same time, since both of them look the same, as do both rooms.

As to homeowners, etc, those are not my words.

rJune 30, 2016 2:43 PM

@Freezing,

The rooms are not identical, they each have a different phone number and reception properties.

Having been to a hotel previously, those intelligence services may also be in control of a switchboard or the network additionally allowing them to quietly hone in on which specific room you are occupying. Couple that with something sincerely dangerous like fibre optics and you're pretty much guaranteed a proper death by hit squad.

Advodka(t)June 30, 2016 4:40 PM

@ianf

Im sorry i whasnt specific enough, i not asking to be told nice stories or be spoonfed.

I meant more in regards to "cause my google never gives me more than what I asked for." What are the right questions or jargon i should ask google?

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