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Algorithms to Reduce Child Sex Trafficking: An Interview with the Creators of Spotlight

Thousands upon thousands of escort ads are posted online every day in the United States, and unfortunately some of these ads represent and exploit children. It has been the job of law enforcement in the U.S. to look through these ads and detect the ones believed to be related to the exploitation of children and the trafficking of humans for sex. This is no small task considering the vast number of ads, but also because when the sifting is done manually, it is extremely time-consuming.

In 2014 Spotlight was launched by the nonprofit tech task force Thorn, along with co-founders Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Spotlight is a web-based tool that leverages Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing service, machine learning algorithms and insight from officers in the field to connect disparate data, with a goal to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of domestic sex trafficking investigations.

The tool is currently in use by thousands of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. It has been an indispensable time-saver, according to law enforcement officials working with Thorn, and has already helped identify thousands of children advertised for sexual services on the Internet as well as both adult and child victims of human trafficking.

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SiliconANGLE recently got in touch with Thorn to talk about Spotlight. Brooke Istook, the company’s director of strategy, gave us the lowdown on the technology and the progress that has been made using it with US law enforcement.

Q: Could you give us a brief background concerning Thorn and why it was started?

Brooke Istook: Thorn was created in 2012 to understand and address the unique role technology played in child sexual exploitation. At the time there was no focused and coordinated effort across the tech industry, law enforcement and non-profit organizations to work together to address the issues and challenges technology presented. Thorn came in to address that gap and has continued to grow and make an impact in this space ever since.

Q: What exactly is Spotlight and how is it used?

Istook: Spotlight is Thorn’s human trafficking investigations tool. Its goal is to provide law enforcement with intelligence and leads about suspected human trafficking networks and individuals in order to identify more victims and connect them with resources. Spotlight was developed because we learned from Thorn’s nationwide survivor survey that 3 out of 4 child sex trafficking victims were advertised online in the course of their exploitation. We also learned from our research that over 150,000 escort ads are posted online each day across the US, and that human trafficking investigators had to manually sift through those ads to try to find child sex trafficking victims. Our goal with Spotlight was to use machine learning algorithms to more quickly sift through the thousands of ads posted each day and more quickly identify the highest risk profiles. We partnered with Digital Reasoning on development of this tool and launched Spotlight late 2014.

Q: Can you explain how such a tool works?

Istook: Spotlight a web-based application that connects data from various publicly available data sources that comprise the online commercial sex marketplace. The tool helps prioritize leads by leveraging machine learning algorithms that were built based on insight from officers in the field. The tool also culls through massive amounts of data in order to provide deep investigative tools to help officers understand the historical and full geographic reach of a victim’s trafficking situation. The objective of the tool is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of domestic minor sex trafficking investigations and increase the number of children who are identified and connected with help resources.

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