Promise and Peril in Tech Approaches To Stopping Child Sex Trafficking

From surveying to surveilling to spreading information, one organization is showing promise and raising concern.


Children and teens are trafficked for sex and exploited for pornography, and the web amplifies this trade. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 500,000 potentially explicit images of minors online in 2004. By 2011 it surged to over 17 million. An estimated 100,000 minors are "at risk" for trafficking.

Legislators try every year to address trafficking. Seventy-six bills and resolutions on human trafficking have been introduced in the 113th Congress so far. But government action regularly falls short of addressing underlying issues and has unintended consequences: Innocent people end up on lifelong registries, guilty people end up indefinitely detained in ineffective reform institutes, and vulnerable sex workers end up violated, displaced, and homeless at the hands of the police.

A Silicon Valley-based organization called Thorn is trying a more tailored, tech-centered approach. The group is low-key, but that shouldn't be mistaken for low-impact: Thorn is financed by celebrities like Demi Moore and has partnerships with major web companies like Google and Facebook. The group is implementing three strategies–surveying, surveilling, and spreading information–to reach out to kids who are susceptible to exploitation. To be clear, Thorn recognizes adults' rights to voluntarily engage in sex work, so that's outside the scope of their advocacy and action. Thorn gives some hope for the future of protecting minors until they're old enough to make these decisions on their own, but the organization's work also raises necessary questions about its own ethics and effectiveness.

The first "big picture" survey may miss key details

Thorn Director of Programs Claire Schmidt said at Stanford University's Liberation Technology series in January, "There aren't that many people in the traditional non-profit sex trafficking prevention world that are actually equipped with the tools and technical know-how … to even understand exactly what's happening in these environments." So her organization conducted a national survey, which is significant, as it's one of the first pieces of research at scale on the trade. It gives them a clearer sense of potential solutions for previously unknown or misunderstood issues such as traffickee-trafficker dynamics, especially since the Internet has quickly and fundamentally changed commerce and communication. For example, they found that "70 percent [of trafficked children are] sold online at some point in their trafficking situation," but that "83 percent of respondents met their trafficker in person" which "did run contrary to a lot of anecdotes [Thorn] was hearing." This has helped shape the initiatives discussed below.

Statistics have their limits, though. For one, the study is skewed by a lack of input from males, who are less likely to discuss trafficking experiences. And data points don't necessarily create an accurate image of reality. Maggie McNeill, a sex work writer and advocate and Reason contributor says that people labeled "trafficker" or "pimp" rarely fulfill cane-carrying stereotypes. She explains that cops will arrest a sex worker's boyfriends and charge him for trafficking. Or, when police find a group of prostitutes living together, they'll charge them for trafficking each other. "Anybody who's not a client who has something to do with sex workers can be called a trafficker," says McNeill. So, Thorn's narrow term for this ill-defined concept may be justified by a principled stance against exploitation, but it may also limit their ability to properly deal with situations that fall outside that framework.

Surveillance of what's out in the open

Other data sets led Thorn to sites Craigslist and Backpage, the latter of which circulates 45,000 escort listings every week.

Schmidt highlighted two ineffective approaches to dealing with sites known to traffic minors. One is through shutting down "adult service" pages, which some groups pressured Craigslist to do in 2010. This predictably resulted in ads simply migrating elsewhere. The second approach is through standard law enforcement practices, which are surprisingly outdated. Officers manually, tediously scroll and guess through pages of posts with potentially fake pictures and almost certainly fake ages.

Aware of the need to not violate the free speech of those advertising adult work, Thorn avoided the first approach and decided to improve the second.

They developed "an algorithm … that could help law enforcement surface the ads that were most likely to be children," said Schmidt. This algorithm can quickly scrape a webpage, analyze the semantics of wonky listings with "texting language" that younger people are more likely to use, "translate" obfuscated phone numbers, pick out key words advertising "youth," and put them all together in a spreadsheet. Tested for three months against previously confirmed posts of children, it was able to "identify patterns that wouldn't even be very obvious to the human eye," according to Schmidt. This helped them develop the algorithm to register an "underage likelihood score," and will continue build more "scores and indexes" as it scans more pages.

Again, there are limits. Thorn admits they don't have any tools to work on the surveillance-resistant Tor network. During a Q&A session after Stanford stopped recording the talk, Schmidt explained about the algorithm, "We don't want to say, 'We just caught you and here's how,'" because traffickers could then game the system.

Any development in police surveillance capabilities should warrant scrutiny, and it will be worth watching trafficking-related sting operations in cities like Anaheim, Houston, Minneapolis, Manhattan, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas, where law enforcement are already using Thorn's algorithm. But ideally this technology is neutral and will make the legitimate police work of protecting people more effective through more powerful analyses of publicly posted information.

Helping people help themselves

Perhaps Thorn's best approach is one that acknowledges how much ending the exploitation of minors relies on the individual, whether victims or perpetrators, to change his or her own behavior when given access to the right tools.

Although the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) has a hotline, Thorn found that "81 percent of [minor sex workers] never saw" the number. The same percentage of minor sex workers said they would have "wanted help to escape at some point during their trafficking situation." In addressing this information gap, they focused in on another statistic: 75 percent of those surveyed had a cellphone while being trafficked. To make the NHTRC more accessible and allow traffickees to get help on their own terms, Thorn developed a text shortcode, "BEFREE," which is easier to remember than a phone number and allows for less conspicuous communication than a call. Schmidt noted that her group is working on making information about shortcode more available through "online ads, text messages, [and] print ads in hotels"–the top three formats surveyed victims said they would have liked.

And Thorn isn't just trying to help victims.

"As opposed to arresting everybody who's ever downloaded a child pornography file," Schmidt said, she wants to deter people with targeted messages. Thorn sets up decoy files and sites that redirect to "people who are already out there looking for child porn to click and end up … on our landing pages" where they'll be located on a map (no more intrusive than geotargeted online ads) and given links to help resources without getting police involved. Over three years "we've gotten a million people to come to our landing pages so far… and we're seeing about… seven percent" of people clicking those links, Schmidt said, which "is a really high percentage in advertising terms."

Thorn can't be expected to solve all the problems of child sex trafficking. The organization is moving outreach in the right direction with its technological focus, but Thorn is not flawless. They're working on a broad problem that needs many tailored responses. Given the tech world's creative, competitive, and charitable culture, we may soon see even better ideas emerge on how to better protect the rights of these vulnerable members of society.