“What I’ve seen makes you question humanity.” Ashton Kutcher’s words express a daily reality for Julie Cordua.
Despite her professional focus on coordinating efforts between the tech industry, government and NGOs to defend children from sexual exploitation, it’s not always possible to put out of her mind the heart-felt evidence of the crimes she is working to prevent.
Julie is CEO of Thorn, a non-profit organization that deals with the darkest side of the internet. Co-founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Thorn drives technology innovation with a mission to combat the predatory behavior of adults towards children, rescue the victims of their crimes, and protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse.
The scale of the problem is as horrifying as it is immense. More than 100,000 escort ads are posted every day in the United States. Somewhere within this vast pile of data are children who are being sexually exploited. The task of sifting through this information has long since exceeded human capacity, leaving law enforcement with an overwhelming challenge as resources available to find the victims and perpetrators of these crimes are stretched to the limit.
“Coming face to face with the sheer numbers of children being trafficked for sex and the number of disgusting pictures being circulated on millions of machines around the country made us sick,” says Tim Estes, founder and CEO Digital Reasoning. Having successfully proven within the domains of national security and financial compliance that cognitive computing can be used to extract vital insights and see hidden patterns in mountains of human communications data, Tim was determined to apply his firm’s technology in support of Thorn’s mission.
There had to be a better way, and our two organizations formed a partnership to explore what could be achieved. The result was Spotlight: a web-based tool that provides law enforcement with intelligence about suspected human trafficking networks and individuals in order to identify and assist victims. Powered by Synthesys®, Digital Reasoning’s cognitive computing platform, Spotlight helps officers find victims and prioritize leads by leveraging machine learning algorithms and insights from data and officers in the field.
Using the cognitive computing capabilities within Synthesys, we found a way to reveal insights from data that was being intentionally concealed and obfuscated by sex traffickers. Capturing and preserving evidence is a challenge when ads are continually removed, updated and reposted. Stated ages are unreliable and often false, names are not real, faces may be hidden in photos, or the photo posted may be of someone over 18. Despite these hurdles, Spotlight is able to assist officers in identifying which ads are really for children by identifying indicative language, connecting disparate data sources and providing deep investigative tools that help to clarify the historical and full geographical reach of a victim’s trafficking situation.
To date, Spotlight has assisted in more than 8,300 investigations conducted by 780 law enforcement agencies. It has contributed to the identification of 6,625 victims and 2,255 pimps. Its ability to help law enforcement handle the scale of human communications data has reduced investigation times by 44%. “Our mission matches the magnitude of the internet, but by working with Digital Reasoning we found a way to empower law enforcement to identify and rescue trafficked children by turning huge volumes of data into an asset,” says Julie. “To understand the significance of the Spotlight initiative, you only need ask those who use it.”
“I cannot even recall life before Spotlight,” says Amy, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security. “Every single phone number coming across my table that I suspect may be involved in gangs, drugs, or trafficking, I immediately plug into Spotlight. I have been surprised by the results I find. Spotlight not only helps us to identify victims, but it also gives us a larger picture of where the crime is being committed per area and the immense scope of the crime.
She continues, “More than anything, Spotlight has added a world of evidence to our cases for prosecution. I recommend Spotlight to every single law enforcement agency in the nation who works on human trafficking crimes. No other system compares! The makers of Spotlight are exceptional human beings who have done a great thing for humanity.”
Human Trafficking facts via Thorn:
• 63% of underage sex trafficking victims report being advertised or sold online
• 325,000 children are at risk for becoming victims of sexual exploitation in North America
• The average age of entry into the sex trade in America is 14 – 16 years old.
• A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and exploits an average of 4-6 girls.