Hacks That Help: Using Tech to Fight Child Exploitation

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Hacks That Help: Using Tech to Fight Child Exploitation

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Spending the weekend in front of a computer sounds like a nightmare, especially to people who already spend most of their week in front of a screen. Still, 100 engineers gathered in Manhattan for a weekend hackathon earlier this month.

They traveled from around the country to work with Thorn, a nonprofit that uses technology to fight adolescent and child sexual exploitation. Founded in 2009 by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher as the DNA Foundation, with a mission of combating trafficking, Thorn was renamed in 2012 after the couple split, and expanded its mission to better incorporate technology in the fight against trafficking.

“We get to use our skills for good,” said Federico Gomez Suarez, a program manager in operations at Microsoft. Mr. Gomez Suarez has been volunteering for Thorn, with support from Microsoft, for two years.

His group project focuses on how to help authorities identify missing or exploited children that appear in escort ads. Creating a program to quickly sort through the tens of thousands of images as quickly as possible requires answering many questions.

“We want to create a program that can quickly ask, ‘Is this child in several ads? Does the ad have text? Are there other ads with similar text? If so, is it possible they were made by the same person?’” Mr. Gomez Suarez said.

Thorn has software with the ability to search through text ads, but wants to be able to better search through images. Engineers and law enforcement agencies focus on information from the solicitation ads posted on sites like Night Shift, Erotic Monkey and Backpage.

About 100 engineers gathered to help Thorn hone its tools to fight adolescent and child sexual exploitation.CreditDanny Ghitis for The New York Times

Over the years, ads offering sex moved from Craigslist to Backpage and are now on to new frontiers. In 2008, Craigslist curbed its “erotic services” listings, and then, in 2010, closed them. Soon enough, Backpage became the primary focus of anti-trafficking activists and law enforcement. In January of this year, Backpage, and the sex-worker advocates who supported it, gave up the fight and Backpage closed its sex ads section.

Thorn’s team garnered insight, they said, from talking to child sex trafficking victims who had worked in prostitution, and from that, created their first tool, called Spotlight.

“Sometimes kids were forced to write their own escort ads to sell themselves,” said Julie Cordua, the C.E.O. of Thorn. “We wondered: Can you analyze the writing in an ad, and if you have a hundred ads and somewhere was one that was written by a child, could you raise that one to the surface by running algorithms on top of it to say, ‘Which of these ads was written by a child?’”

Spotlight, Thorn says, is now used by more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies across the country and Canada. Another of Thorn’s products, Solis, is used to identify children whose images are being distributed on the dark web.

Juan Reveles of the Anaheim Police Department has run the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force since 2014 and, in the last three years, the task force says that it has used Spotlight to solve more than 100 investigations of trafficking.

“Spotlight condenses a lot of the information out there on sites like Backpage into a format that we can more easily use to identify people faster,” Mr. Reveles said.

“This is the one I’m most proud of,” Mr. Kutcher said of his tech investments.CreditDanny Ghitis for The New York Times

The availability of this technology presents lots of questions. One obvious one: Can’t authorities abuse the technology and use it to trace people they believe are guilty of crimes unrelated to sexual exploitation?

Ms. Cordua said the technology the organization uses already exists in some capacity. However, no one has made the concentrated effort to use it to fight issues like human trafficking and child and adolescent sexual abuse, because there’s no money there.

“If your customer is a child in distress and trauma and you have the technology, you don’t really have the incentive to use it,” Ms. Cordua said. “What we wanted was to change the game.”

Thorn has repurposed and is working to improve the same natural-language processing tools companies use to advertise the shoes you were interested in a few days ago, and the restaurant whose menu you browsed the other night on Facebook. Additionally, Thorn uses network analysis, similar to tools used in terrorism or fraud cases.

“If you’re looking at escort ads and someone is being sold, you want to know ‘Is that person alone or are they maybe part of a group of five being controlled by the same trafficker?” Ms. Cordua said.

Central to much of Thorn’s work is research done by medical professionals who have worked with victims as well as offenders. From that research, Thorn has experimented with warnings that appear in search engines when people search for child sex content.

The strategies can vary depending on the audience: There are differences between someone who abuses a child; someone who abuses a child, documents it and shares it online; and someone who is trading abuse content but has never abused a child.

“Those insights affect a lot of our messaging,” Ms. Cordua said. “If you’re a someone who is consuming abuse content but you haven’t abused a child yet, I want to get to you and get you to stop before it gets worse.”

It would be a misconception to think that law enforcement personnel can push a button and come up with people to arrest (yet).

“The last 100 yards are always human, but what we’re trying to do is make it faster to find these kids and really to find a needle in the haystack,” Ms. Cordua said.

Mr. Kutcher, who testified about trafficking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, has spent a lot of time thinking about how to best combat the abuse of technology by traffickers.

“There’s no silver bullet, one-size fits all solution,” Mr. Kutcher said. “You create a tool that helps law enforcement solve one issue, but then you have to build another tool to deal with another issue.”

Mr. Kutcher said Thorn is the most fulfilling of his more than 150 investments. “This is the one I’m most proud of,” he said.

The organization has also recently begun to address what is known as sextortion, creating materials to help young people who are threatened with revelation of private or intimate digital images.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST12 of the New York edition with the headline: A Quest for the Tools To Help Exploited Children. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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