A Cal Poly student is developing a virtual reality (VR) program to combat human trafficking within the San Luis Obispo County.

Computer science senior Zahnae Aquino is working closely with the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) to develop immersive training for law enforcement.

The project began with Cal Poly engineering student Marco Zuniga last year, but Aquino took over following Zuniga’s graduation in 2019.

The game-type program allows law enforcement to interact directly with environments they come across in real life. Illicit massage parlors are often the home of trafficking activity in the county, so Aquino worked to recreate that setting in a virtual world.

Users are given a list of objectives, which then go on to identify evidence of illegal activity.

“A lot of these illicit parlors are just places of illegal practices beyond trafficking, so fake passports and counterfeit money are clear evidence,” Aquino said when discussing how users identify an issue. “Users will come across a shelf, and when they’re instructed to move it, an entire living space for these trafficked women will be revealed.”

She went on to explain the critical role that detail plays in the program. The CCI is partnered with Polaris, a non-profit organization that works with more than 40,000 trafficking cases per year, so Aquino was able to access the information necessary to make the program accurate.

According to San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, there have been 12 proven human trafficking convictions in the area since 2013. More than 80 cases of potential trafficking were referred to the D.A. office in that same time frame.

D.A. Victim Witness Assistant Director Beth Raub said of the 12 cases in the area, 11 victims were minors.

“You don’t realize the sheer number of people that are affected by this locally because it happens behind closed doors,” Aquino said. “When someone gets murdered it’s all over the news, but this has become such a weird wrinkle in Central Coast culture that nobody knows about it.”

Aquino is expected to present the finished product at a CCI convention in early 2020.

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