WACO, Texas (FOX 44) – Two Baylor University professors and a team of computer scientists are looking to prevent illegal transactions on consumer-to-consumer web sites.

The university says many people use these web sites for common 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 for business in human trafficking, the sale of stolen goods and more.

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

The university says this 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 a way which could serve individuals in need of an advocate.

The award funding the work is an EAGER SaTC grant from the NSF, which promotes a secure and trustworthy cyberspace. The grant is called Enabling Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Using NLP to Identify Suspicious Transactions in Omnichannel Online C2C Marketplaces, and it funds the team’s research using Natural language processing (NLP). NLP is considered a subfield of artificial intelligence (AI) involving human language patterns which 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.

As an EAGER SaTC grant, the NSF recognizes the potential for risk and reward. These projects are experimental by nature. However, if they work, they advance safety and security for internet users. Rivas says the risk is that researchers don’t know what they’ll find – but the goal of disrupting illicit activity, identifying individuals caught in trafficking and making it harder to engage in such activity is a goal worthy of this investment.

Baylor says that in addition to Rivas and Cerny, an alumnus and former professor serve on the grant team. Laurie Giddens, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of information systems at the University of North Texas, and is a two-time Baylor graduate who partnered with her then-Baylor professor, Stacie Petter, Ph.D., on a 2020 NSF grant forming an interdisciplinary team to examine obstacles and training to equip law enforcement to fight human trafficking.

Petter is now a professor of management information systems at Wake Forest University, and continues to serve on this grant – along with Gisella Bichler, Ph.D., from the Center for Criminal Justice Research at California State University San Bernardino, and Javier Turek, Ph.D., research scientist in machine learning at Intel Labs.

Rivas is an AI expert who is providing insights into machine learning and ethics. He serves as the director for Baylor’s Center for Standards and Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, which is funded through a prior NSF grant.

The grant runs through April 2024, and enables Rivas and collaborators to use their discipline to make crime harder to commit and those victimized by crime easier to identify.