Stories and Articles

SDSU Research Exposes How Criminals Use Emoticons To Stymie Law Enforcement

Jessica Whitney, SDSU’s top MSIS graduate for 2017 and management information systems professor, Dr. Murray Jennex have been able to “crack the code” used by criminals who place sex trafficking ads in online publications. They discovered that emoticons are now used by traffickers since they are better able to elude automated monitoring tools used by law enforcement.

Dr. Murray Jennex and former student, Jessica Whitney

Dr. Murray Jennex with his student and research partner, Jessica Whitney

The pair researched online advertising posted on the Backpage site for the San Diego, Orange County and the Los Angeles regions of Southern California. They were able to identify that a rose emoji identified the sale of services, a growing heart or cherries indicated an underage trafficking victim, and a crown indicated restricted movements, such as a house arrest.
“Once law enforcement was able to use automated online language processing tools to root out potential sex trafficking ads, the criminals had to evolve their messaging to avoid detection,” said Whitney. “The use of emoticons thwarts applications searching for certain words which keeps criminals keeps criminals in the business of trafficking their victims.” 
The researchers are currently sharing their findings with law enforcement officials and presented their finding to other academics and to law enforcement during the fall of 2017.