Public Release: 

Kent research could play major role in curbing illegal ivory sales

University of Kent

A new automated data mining system researched and developed at the University of Kent could lead to a dramatic increase in the detection of potentially illegal online sales of elephant ivory through eBay.

Law enforcement agencies and conservationist are expected to make use of the system - developed by researchers from the University's Centre for Cyber Security - in their ongoing battle against illegal ivory sales.

At the moment, identifying illegal elephant ivory being sold online is a laborious, tedious and expensive task, even for experts.

A search for items listed as 'ivory' throws up a multitude of items - including ivory-coloured wedding dresses - making the task of tracking down illegal products akin to finding a needle in a haystack. In addition, criminals usually avoid using the term 'ivory' to bypass online bans.

But research from Dr David Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity Conservation at the University's Durrell Institute of Conservation, and Dr Julio Hernandez-Castro, Lecturer in Computing at the University's School of Computing, shows how the automated system can mimic human expert classification of potentially illegal elephant ivory - but at a fraction of the cost and thousands of times faster.

The research, published in the journal PeerJ Computer Science, shows how the team utilised what is known as a 'high throughput machine learning algorithm' to 'read' the computer information behind eBay listings.

As part of the study, two experts manually classified items on sale in the antiques section of eBay, looking at the type of ivory and whether it was potentially legal or illegal.

The classifications obtained by the experts were compared against those achieved by the data mining system, which used less data than the experts, including not referencing item descriptions or associated images.

The results showed the new automated system could replicate the success of the human experts with a 93% accuracy rate, and that this would be increased if it added more information, such as images.

The team will now work to further develop the system for launch.


Full details of the published research can be viewed at:

For further information or interview requests contact Martin Herrema at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: 01227 823581/01634 888879

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Notes to editors

1. Dr Roberts and Dr Hernandez-Castro are both members of the University's Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Cyber Security.

2. The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology is part of the University's School of Anthropology and Conservation.

3. Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It has been ranked: third for overall student satisfaction in the 2014 National Student Survey; 16th in the Guardian University Guide 2016; 28th in the Sunday Times University League Table 2013; and 22nd in the Complete University Guide 2015.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium.

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

In 2014, Kent received its second Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

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