Eagles tackle human trafficking with technology for Homeland Security Investigations

5 – minute read

When Diego Grisales chose FGCU, he didn’t anticipate he’d be helping Homeland Security Investigations fight crime in Lee County.


But now the December software engineering graduate can add “cyber warrior” to his résumé.


“Since I was very, very small, I wanted to be a programmer. I had no idea what it meant to be a programmer, but even back in Colombia I knew I liked computers a lot,” said Grisales, who moved to Southwest Florida with his parents at 13.


For an early course assignment at FGCU, Grisales created a time-saving application that automatically generated reports and calculated commissions for his parents’ seven cellphone stores. He created another app to help his sister buy a house. And his work with software engineering associate professor Anna Koufakou on emotion detection in text data earned his name on a paper published earlier this year.

But his most exciting project at FGCU started fall 2022. That’s when John Yancey, resident agent in charge at the Fort Myers office of Homeland Security Investigations, presented a unique opportunity to software design capstone class students: fight human trafficking and child exploitation in Southwest Florida.


For four years, Yancey has partnered with FGCU. “Initially, we recruited students in the criminal justice program who may be considering careers in law enforcement,” he said. He expanded to the software engineering program to engage students considering tech careers.

FGCU graduate
Diego Grisales graduated in December with a degree in software engineering. “Since I was very, very small, I wanted to be a programmer."

“Human traffickers use multiple websites and computer apps to traffic their victims for commercial sex,” Yancey said. His agency seeks out new technologies to combat criminal activity on the internet.


Of all the partners who presented to the capstone class, Yancey stood out, Grisales said.


“Agent Yancey showed us this really cool video about HSI’s missions, and it was very exciting,” he said. “It was a surprise for us because we think of Fort Myers as a small city. We wouldn’t expect that it’s a hot zone for human trafficking.”


Homeland Security Investigations’ process for searching all the suspected criminal activity sites was cumbersome, Yancey said, involving agents clicking through individual web pages to search keywords and identify contact details. “We needed a more efficient way to find victims of trafficking. We wanted a tool which could search multiple platforms at the same time,” he said.


Grisales and his teammates, Oscar Fox (’23, software engineering) and Ragy Costa de jesus (’23, software engineering), had created a web scraping tool the previous semester in their computer networks class.

FGCU graduate
Diego Grisales, left, and classmates created a web scraping tool for Homeland Security Investigations in collaboration with John Yancey, resident agent in charge at the Fort Myers office.

“We knew we could do the same for Homeland Security Investigations,” Grisales said.


Yancey invited Grisales’ team and a second team from the class to the Fort Myers HSI office. Just as they would in a meeting with clients, the students questioned the agents to understand exactly what they needed.


Yancey showed them some of the websites where he suspected trafficked people were being sold into prostitution. The students got to work creating an automated solution to the agents’ manual process to help save time and eliminate human error.


Throughout the semester, the students presented design documents to Yancey’s team, to help them get a better idea of the web scraper tool the students were building. Grisales and his teammates also created a nonfunctional prototype so the agents could better visualize the final product.


“The prototype was pretty close, but the feedback we received is what helped us realign and develop the project that the special agents had in mind,” Grisales said.


According to him, the biggest challenge was what drew the students to help Homeland Security in the first place — that they were working with law enforcement agents.

FGCU graduate
Homland Security Investigations now has three interns and two new teams of capstone students working to advance the tools Grisales and the other FGCU students created in their capstone class.

“Most of the other capstone projects were all with software companies, so if those students got stuck, they could always reach out to an engineer in the company and ask for help. But we didn’t have that,” Grisales said. “We were the software engineers.”


By the time Grisales’ teammates, Fox and Costa de jesus, graduated in May, the three students had built a web scraper tool that Homeland Security Investigations uses and updates through a continued partnership with FGCU.


Yancey now has three interns and two new teams of capstone students working to advance the tools Grisales and the other FGCU students created.


“The computer tools created by the students are enabling us to identify human traffickers much more efficiently and, in turn, rescue more victims and arrest more traffickers,” Yancey said. “But it also gave us the opportunity to engage with all the students in the software development program. They learned who we are, what we do and what opportunities our agency offers students seeking careers in technology fields.”


Grisales credits all of his professors at FGCU for helping him build the knowledge base to tackle a project like this. “All of the classes I’ve taken, from the most basic intro to programming to data structures and algorithms to software engineering requirements, helped us build on top of each other until we get to a point where — well, where we felt comfortable working on a project of this size.”


This is the first in a series of stories spotlighting outstanding December graduates.

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