A team of Cal Poly students is using virtual reality to fight back against human trafficking.
” We’re building an illicit massage parlor in virtual reality to help train law enforcement on different evidence and different things to look for, ” said Marco Zuniga , a virtual reality developer and Cal Poly engineering major who graduated in 2019.
During his time at the university, Zuniga worked at the C alifornia Cybersecurity Institute ( CCI ), a multi-agency lab that partners with the California National Guard, and Cal Poly.
Zuniga says the CCI lab is equipped with a mock-up massage parlor where law enforcement trains for sex crimes. That’s how the idea was born.
” We wanted a more portable way, and kinda more accessible way to bring this training to people across the state, ” he said.
The Bay Area native says he researched survivor stories, and looked up massage places as he developed the VR training.
” W hat do massage parlors even look like? What is the common evidence and kinda tells, that say this isn’t a real business? ” he asked himself during that process.
Now, more than a year later, Zuniga says the virtual massage parlor could soon be ready for law enforcement to train with.
The VR scenario looks like a video game version of a typical massage place –but upon closer scrutiny, it is anything but. Passports, bus tickets, and even the pricing are clues purposely sprinkled around the place.
“Typically the prices for these massages are really cheap because it doesn’t necessarily encapsulate what these women are forced to provide, ” said Zahnae Aquino, a 4th year computer science student who joined Zuniga in May. “By having all those elements in place, you then are able to interact with [the victims] through the headset, and also the controllers. So you’re able to navigate the scene, go down the hallway, open the doors. ”
The VR training has other objectives for its users, like finding signs of other illicit practices within the business.
“Because typically there’s also like money laundering, fraudulent passports, those kinds of things, ” said Aquino.
The students said they didn’t realize how bad the problem was until they started working on this project.
According to the San Luis Obispo County County District Attorney’s Office, there were a total of 1,721 sexually suggestive ads over a 2-week period in May 2019.
“Today people are being sold on the internet via all sorts of social media websites and apps, ” D. A Dan Dow said. “We’ve had several investigations here that have led to the closure of massage parlors in San Luis Obispo County. ”
In 2014, the D. A ‘s Office launched an Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force to raise awareness about the issue, and put more criminals behind bars.
“It is a collaboration between law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, community partners, and other county agencies, ” said Dow.
Since 2013, the D. A ‘s office has had more than 80 cases involving pimping, prostitution, and human trafficking.
“Several of those were pimping minors, ” he said.
The FBI has identified California as one of the top destinations for human trafficking, and Dow says the Central Coast has become a hub for these activities because it’s a touristic region.
“The people that are trafficking victims bring them not only because there is the demand, but also because they can blend in and appear to also be travelers, ” he said.
This is one of the reasons human trafficking is so hard to spot.
Now that Zuniga has graduated, Aquino will take over the project. She hopes their efforts will help victims soon.
“What we’ve been trying to do is create a program that helps build the empathy that the non-governmental organizations already have but law enforcement is still trying to develop, ” she said.
In the meantime, the DA’s office Victim’s Assistance Center is working closely with survivors.
“We have an advocate that’s on-call 24/7, ” said Dow.