A group of Marshall University’s Digital Forensics and Information Assurance students, faculty, and staff have assisted in the liberation of nearly 40 child trafficking victims and the arrest of 10 suspected traffickers. They did so through a partnership with the nonprofit group Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). The effort took place in recent months and involved sex trafficking in Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.
John Sammons, director of Marshall’s Digital Forensics and Information Assurance program in the College of Science, heard about O.U.R on a podcast and thought the students in Marshall’s Open Source Intelligence Exchange (OSIX) program could help. The OSIX program uses selected and vetted college students to provide open source intelligence collection and analysis for law enforcement and other clients.
Sammons approached Matt Osborne, senior vice president of Rescue and Recovery of O.U.R., whom he’d met at a conference in Dallas, and Marshall students started work on this project in October of 2017. O.U.R. operatives used intelligence gathered by Marshall students to work undercover investigations on the other side of the world.
"Many people have contributed their time and talents to the issue," Sammons said. "Assistant Professors Josh Brunty and Bill Gardner, along with the School of Forensic and Criminal Justice Sciences’ director, Dr. Dru Bora, have been heavily involved in the project as well. In addition, Tiffany Hussell, the program manager for the School of Forensic and Criminal Justice Sciences has assisted. Mrs. Hussell is fluent in Spanish and helped immensely."
Students were thankful to be part of the effort.
"When the opportunity to be a part of this program came up, I filled out the application immediately," said Marshall senior Cole Linder.
"The opportunity to gather intelligence for a real-world operation has been the most rewarding experience throughout my college career," said student Emily Hudson. "Not many undergraduate students can say they have seen the numbers of children they assisted in saving."
This was one example of a positive outcome for both the cause and for students’ education, Sammons said.
"It’s a horrible situation out there, with all the sex trafficking and victimization of children. You just can’t let that stand," Sammons said.
"Though this experience is different from other classes, this is something that I truly want to do," said student Stacy Cossin. "This experience has been truly rewarding because as a group we were able to improve the quality of people’s lives. It is an amazing feeling to know that you are part of a team that can truly work together to make a small change."
Operation Underground Railroad is a registered 501(c)3 organization. Bringing together former CIA, Navy SEALs, and Special Ops operatives, O.U.R. partners with local law enforcement agencies around the world to save children from human trafficking. Founded by CEO Tim Ballard at the end of 2013, O.U.R. has to date rescued 1,013 victims and helped arrest 462 suspected traffickers worldwide.
O.U.R. is grateful for its partnership with Marshall University and its Open Source Intelligence program, Osborne said. During the fall semester of 2017, Sammons’ students provided reports to support O.U.R. child rescue operations in Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, he said.
"To date, this intelligence has assisted in the liberation of almost 40 child trafficking victims in Mexico and Peru, and in the arrest of some 10 suspected traffickers," he said. "These Marshall University students are experts in scraping the web and leveraging online social media accounts to help O.U.R.’s law enforcement partners advance their child sexual exploitation cases. Currently, O.U.R. operatives are using intelligence gathered by Marshall students to work undercover investigations in Thailand and Ecuador. We look forward to a continued partnership with Marshall throughout 2018 and beyond."
O.U.R is coming to Marshall’s Huntington campus in March for a workshop and presentation. The university is also a part of the Bluegrass State Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence (BGS IC CAE). The goal of this program is to prepare the next generation of intelligence and security professionals including national security, homeland security, law enforcement, and private sector security. The workshop is for students in the BGS IC CAE and law enforcement.
Photos: (Above) Marshall University’s OSIX team includes, from left, Cole Linder, Robert Dean, Shannon Faulkner, Whitney McAtee, Moya Dixon, Emily Hudson, Tiffany Hussell, Scott Ballengee, and Blake Lawrence. Not pictured: Stacy Cossin and Madline Flanagan. (Below) Cole Linder working on an OSIX report.