Texas just became the first state to enlist an AI expert in the fight against criminal exploitation.
On Tuesday, the state awarded $330,000 to Collective Liberty, a startup that uses machine learning to help law enforcement agencies identify the nearly 4,400 human traffickers operating in the U.S.
This year represents the second year Texas has worked with Collective Liberty, which is based in Austin and Washington D.C. Since 2019, Collective Liberty has trained about 920 local law enforcement professionals on how to use its platform, assisted with more than 75 arrests and worked with 60 agencies across Texas, CEO and co-founder Rochelle Keyhan told Built In. The startup plans to use the funds to dedicate an analyst to investigate trafficking cases in Texas full time — representing the first state to hire an AI expert to survey the field.
“Funding is pretty slow for government technology and civic-focused technology that’s not necessarily going to become a billion-dollar unicorn,” Keyhan told Built In. “This is going to be a huge boost for the company.”
Keyhan founded the nonprofit in 2018 after her experience as a prosecutor in Philadelphia opened her eyes to how unprepared the legal system was to handle human-trafficking cases. The lack of intelligence around the offense made prosecuting the cases stretch up to five years longer than other criminal offenses, Keyhan said. The issue, she said, was rooted in data.
Human-trafficking cases typically generated more evidence compared to other cases, which meant defense attorneys needed more time to examine the information. By the time attorneys finished going through what prosecutors found, the prosecution would have uncovered mountains of more information — creating a lengthy court cycle that made Keyhan feel like she was failing the victim. In 2015, a file landed on Keyhan’s desk labeled with the name of a man she knew had been accused of domestic violence. She wondered what he did this time.
“I open it up, and the entire two years that I hadn’t been able to convict him, he had been sex trafficking a minor,” Keyhan said. “Had we had access to data to confirm those misdemeanor cases might have been connected to broader felony activity, we might have stopped him sooner.”
By automating the process, Keyhan realized she could speed up prosecution. She launched Collective Liberty, which has now collected billions of data points from police reports, court records, social media postings and more to create an anti-trafficking data repository. The startup’s machine-learning system — which is powered by Amazon Web Services — identifies relationships between people, bank accounts and past prosecutions to highlight the criminal networks involved in trafficking. Then, the group hands that information to police, which Keyhan said helps identify exploiters without arresting potential victims.
“Penalizing victims really prevents them from asking for help on their own,” Keyhan said. “It just sends them back, puts them more in debt and makes them more vulnerable to being re-recruited all over again.”
The funding round brings total investment in Collective Liberty to just under $1 million, Keyhan said. The seven-person company is currently hiring for a data scientist and intelligence analyst.