Interview: Thorn is using technology to protect children from sexual exploitation

Thorn is using technology to fight child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Image: Thorn CEO Julie Cordua

There is nothing more despicable than the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Sadly, the internet has made it easier than ever for criminals to engage in behaviors that harm children.

When Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore learned about child sex trafficking in Cambodia while watching a documentary in 2012, they were shocked. Further research showed that the problem was just as prevalent in the United States. The duo described the situation as a “moment where you learn something about the world you can’t un-know.”

This prompted them to do something about the problem. From that idea, Thorn was founded. In the years that followed, it became apparent that technology plays a central role in making the sexual exploitation of children more accessible.

So, Thorn shifted its strategy to use technology to fight back. The organization is now responsible for some of the biggest innovations in the fight against child sex trafficking and exploitation.

I had the chance to speak with Thorn’s current CEO, Julie Cordua, about the organization’s mission and how it is using technology for good. Read on to learn more about Thorn and then check out the full interview below.

Turning the Tide

Thorn’s mission is based on three core pillars that define how it operates. The first focuses on accelerating victim identification. In other words, the non-profit aims to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to identify children who are victims of sexual exploitation online.

To accomplish this goal, Thorn relies on new research, sometimes conducting primary studies of its own. The organization found that 75 percent of child sexual exploitation survivors over the past decade reported being advertised online.

The anonymity of the internet makes it an ideal platform for buying and selling children. That fact, along with the internet’s massive size, makes it difficult for law enforcement agents to track down cases of sexual exploitation on their own.

So, Thorn developed a tool called Spotlight. It is currently being used by officers in all 50 U.S. states as well as in Canada. Spotlight is a web-based tool that uses machine learning and image analysis to identify child victims of human trafficking.

Thorn says that Spotlight has helped identify 14,847 victims in the past four years. Meanwhile, the tool helps law enforcement officers cut down on their search times by as much as 60 percent. To put things in perspective, Spotlight plays a part in identifying an average of 10 child victims per day.

That brings the second pillar of Thorn’s approach front and center. The organization aims to equip platforms and law enforcement officers with the tools they need to battle child sexual exploitation at the source. Thorn partners with a number of tech companies and other non-profits to achieve this mission.

The third tenet of Thorn’s philosophy is to empower the public. Aside from its work in the tech space, it seeks to educate people about the growing problem of child sexual abuse and exploitation. It also has resources to help people get educated and get involved.

On top of this, Thorn works with volunteers from the tech community to develop its various tools and relies on more than 2,000 donors to keep its mission running.

Interview with Thorn CEO Julie Cordua

The Burn-In (TBI): How does Thorn work with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that they have access to the most high-tech tools possible in their fight against child sexual abuse?

Julie Cordua (JC): We build technology that allows law enforcement to find and identify child victims of sex trafficking faster. The internet has made it easier for children to be bought and sold online. Law enforcement simply doesn’t have enough resources to navigate the massive online commercial sex market to find children. That’s where we come in.

With the help of our tool Spotlight, licensed law enforcement have been able to identify nearly 14,000 child victims of sex trafficking and reduce investigative times by more than 60 percent.

TBI: It’s clear that Spotlight is making a big impact. Can you share a bit more about how this tool works from a technical standpoint?

JC: There are 200,000 escort ads posted every day in this country. Spotlight uses machine learning and other techniques in order to narrow results from these ads so that law enforcement can more easily find child victims. It elevates what our algorithms believe to be a child, and it is the role of law enforcement to begin an investigation from there.

TBI: Does Thorn work with victims directly or is it making its impact on a broader scale?

JC: Thorn does not work with victims directly. Our aim is to achieve broad and rapid scale and impact by putting our tools directly in the hands of those on the front lines of fighting child sexual exploitation.

TBI: Technology is moving in a lot of directions right now. What are a few areas that are most impactful to Thorn’s mission?

JC: Technology can be used for good or evil—its ultimate application is in the hands of who is using it. We have to monitor both how new technologies can be used to end online child sexual abuse and also how they can be used to abuse children so we can stay ahead of perpetrators and shift the balance for children. We are staying abreast of changes across many technologies and seeking to understand how we can best apply those changes in support of the children we serve. We’re interested in AI, machine learning, video and image analytics, natural language processing and much more.


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