Connecting the dots: using open-source intelligence to map covert networks, vulnerability and exploitation within the off-street sex market

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Stirling

Principal Researcher

Richard Kjellgren

Level of Research


Project Start Date

September 2019

Research Context

With the advent of the internet and online technologies, the way in which information flows between people and organisations has been transformed. Consequently, the organisation of the sex market has been reshaped by the emergence of online technologies and there has been a shift from street prostitution towards an expanding off-street sector. While there is considerable evidence that victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking are advertised on both social media and online classifieds, there is limited knowledge regarding the role of online technologies in facilitating exploitation and sex trafficking.

Online technologies add new layers of complexities to the policing of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, as they allow traffickers and organised crime groups to become more sophisticated in their modus operandi. Consequently, innovative methods of policing are required to overcome the challenges brought upon by the intersection of sexual exploitation and online technologies.

This research is concerned with developing an evidenced understanding of how the off-street sex market has been reconfigured by the emergence of online technologies, and particularly, how organised crime groups and traffickers use technology to facilitate their operations in the context of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. It seeks to examine the extent to which it is possible to identify covert networks operating within the off-street sex market and patterns indicative of vulnerability and exploitation. In doing so, it aims to develop an innovative methodology to analyse large volumes of textual data, with the purpose of generating actionable, open-source intelligence for law enforcement.

Research Methodology

‚ÄčA mixed-methods approach is used for this research project. Traditional social methods (e.g. qualitative interviewing and document analysis) are used to understand the organisation of the sex market and the modus operandi of crime groups. In addition, as the research is aimed at developing a novel methodology for the collection and analysis of open-source intelligence, a variety of advanced quantitative methods are employed. In particular, web crawling, data mining, machine learning, social network analysis, and multilevel modelling are used for this purpose. The aim of this exercise is to provide law enforcement with a practical tool for the purpose of the proactive policing of exploitation and trafficking.

Interim reports and publications

‚ÄčNot available

Date due for completion

September 2023
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