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Baylor researchers lead interdisciplinary team identifying illicit online activity under NSF-funded grant

Pablo Rivas, Ph.D., and Tomas Cerny, Ph.D., of Baylor’s computer science department, are part of a more than $300,000 grant looking at human trafficking, auto parts sales stolen and more

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing and Communications

WACO, Texas (October 13, 2022) – Many people use consumer-to-consumer websites for everyday household transactions. These sites, like Craigslist, connect buyers and sellers for a variety of legal transactions. Unfortunately, criminals also use these consumer-to-consumer websites, but do so to facilitate the illicit trade of human trafficking, sale of stolen goods, etc. It is these types of transactions that two Baylor University professors and an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists seek to thwart.

Pablo Rivas, Ph.D.assistant professor of computer science at Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, is the principal investigator of a $314,284 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use technology to identify and disrupt illicit online transactions. colleague Baylor Tomas Cerny, Ph.D.assistant professor of computer science, is also part of the five-person team.

“We’re looking at this from two angles,” Rivas said. “One concerns human services offered illegally, with the aim of detecting human trafficking. Second, what we learn from this area can be applied to other transactions, such as stolen goods such as auto parts.

The project sits at the intersection of emerging technologies and human challenges. The NSF funding will fuel the research team as they apply their discipline in ways that could serve those in need of an advocate.

“Innovation doesn’t happen by accident, and Baylor is fortunate to have people as skilled and passionate as Dr. Rivas and Dr. Cerny on our faculty,” said Erich Baker, Ph.D., Dean by acting from the School of Engineering and Computer Science. “Given the technology the world uses today, this work is vital, and we are delighted that NSF sees the value in investing in this team.”

Risk and reward using natural language processing

The award funding the work is an EAGER SaTC grant from the NSF, promoting a secure and trustworthy cyberspace. Entitled Enabling Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration: Using NLP to Identify Suspicious Transactions in Omnichannel Online C2C Marketplaces, the grant funds the team’s research using automatic natural language processing (NLP). NLP is considered a subfield of artificial intelligence (AI) involving human language models that pursues an understanding of language, context, information, and more shared online.

Rivas, Cerny and their team will seek to determine NLP’s ability to identify suspicious listings online.

“NLP has been around for a long time, but computational linguistics and increased computing power, coupled with breakthroughs in machine learning, have pushed the field to exciting new frontiers,” Rivas said. “With machine learning, we can push NLP to make inferences by detecting patterns in language.”

As an EAGER SaTC grant, the NSF recognizes the potential for risk and reward. These projects are, by nature, experimental. However, if they work, they improve the safety of Internet users. The risk, Rivas said, is that researchers don’t know what they will find. But the objective of disrupting illicit activities, identifying individuals caught in trafficking and making it more difficult to participate in such activities is a goal worthy of this investment.

“We think we’ll find markers or identifiers of human trafficking, but that’s the risk,” Rivas said. “We also hope that we can apply what we learn to other illegal activities online.”

An interdisciplinary team promoting online security

In addition to Rivas and Cerny, a Baylor alumnus and former Baylor professor is on the grant team. Laurie Giddens, Ph.D., assistant professor of information systems at the University of North Texas, MSIS ’02, Ph.D. ’17, is a two-time Baylor graduate who partnered with her Baylor professor at the time, Stacie Petter, Ph.D., on a 2020 NSF Grant formation of an interdisciplinary team to examine obstacles; and training to equip law enforcement in the fight against human trafficking. Petter, now a professor of management information systems at Wake Forest University, continues to benefit from this grant, along with Gisella Bichler, Ph.D., of the Center for Criminal Justice Research at California State University San Bernardino, and Javier Turek, Ph.D., machine learning researcher at Intel Labs.

Rivas, an AI expert, provides insight into machine learning and ethics, an intersection he is familiar with. He holds the position of director for Baylor Center for Standards and Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, funded by an earlier NSF grant. Similarly, Cerny provides information through a software lens.

“I look at the data science perspective through the software engineering side,” Cerny said. “It’s about knowing how to retrieve and store data and make semantic connections based on commonly recognized principles in our discipline.”

The grant, which runs through April 2024, allows Rivas and his associates to use their discipline to make crime harder to commit and victims of crime easier to identify.

“We believe that with machine learning, we can create models that can help us learn more about how crime works,” Rivas said. “We can then provide that intelligence to others, like law enforcement or behavioral scientists, to recognize those who are engaging in illegal activity and connect law enforcement to them, so they account for their actions. This leads to a safer online community for everyone who uses these consumer-to-consumer sites and disrupts illegal activities.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked 1 research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by combining interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Established in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continuously operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a wide range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND COMPUTER SCHOOL

Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) has been preparing its students for more than 25 years as innovators for global impact by training graduates in professional practice and responsible leadership with a Christian outlook. Students can choose from majors including bioinformatics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, general engineering, and mechanical engineering. ECS also offers graduate programs in all areas of study within the school. We stand out from the crowd with Christian commitment, a strong community, expert accessibility, top-notch hands-on experience, and teamwork. Visit baylor.edu/ecs to learn more and follow on Facebook at facebook.com/BaylorECS and on Instagram at @Baylor_ECS.



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