SEATTLE — On Feb. 15, 2017, Ashton Kutcher, actor and co-founder of THORN, presented a moving speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). In 2009, Kutcher and Demi Moore founded the DNA Foundation which eventually became THORN: an anti-human trafficking organization that defends exploited children.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) explains that child pornography was almost eradicated by the mid-1980s. However, the internet boom also allowed a proliferation of the child pornography market. Using the internet, child pornography offenders were able to find a community and normalize their criminal activity. As the online market for child pornography developed, the DOJ found a disturbing trend in sadistic and violent child sexual abuse. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children discovered that more than 138 million images of exploited children were readily available at the click of a button. According to the DOJ, once an image was on the internet, it could continue to circulate forever.
THORN seeks to use technology to even the playing field for these young victims. Its task force is made of 25 tech companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter, that collaborate on initiatives to fight child sexual exploitation. In his address to the SFRC, Kutcher explained that technology was “simply a tool, a tool without a will.” In the right hands, it will make a significant impact.
In 2013, Microsoft collaborated with THORN to launch a software called PhotoDNA which can remove pictures from websites. The software creates a “hash” or a digital signature for abusive images. Companies, such as Google, then proceed to use these hashes to identify and remove photos from their own websites. During the same year, THORN, Twilio, Salesforce.com and Polaris Project collaborated to create a texting solution where victims were able to text “BEFREE” to discreetly and instantly connect with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
The effects of THORN’s work have been nothing short of remarkable. The company’s technology, Spotlight, identified 6,000 trafficking victims, 2,000 of whom were minors. Spotlight has been used by 4,000 law enforcement officials across 900 agencies and has reduced investigation times by 60 percent. Another tool, Solis, reduced some investigation times from three years to three weeks and is used by 40 agencies around the world. Furthermore, THORN’s technology becomes smarter and more efficient over time.
In his speech, Kutcher praised the committee for its bipartisan efforts to reduce modern slavery and explained the need for more private and public partnerships. He credited the creation of THORN to U.S. Senator John McCain, Tennessee-based company Digital Reasoning and other private and public partners. Today, THORN’s partnership with Amazon Web Services allows computing, storage and analytical support for anti-trafficking projects. To improve child facial recognition, Microsoft, Intel and Thorn are creating a service to find missing and exploited children faster.
As he wrapped up his address, Kutcher also mentioned that the foster-care system is a “microcosm of what happens when displacement happens abroad.” According to Kutcher, those in foster care are four times more likely to be exposed to trafficking. In the same way, the refugee crisis is an incubator for trafficking. Refugees Deeply has reported that the going rate for an Afghan teenager is between $5 and $10. Italian doctors found that among refugees, 50 percent of unaccompanied children had sexually transmitted diseases. Vulnerability breeds trafficking opportunities; anti-trafficking must be a collaborative effort between private and public sectors globally.
THORN and other tech companies are gearing up to fight one of the largest criminal industries today. The possibilities created when the private and public spheres collaborate together are endless. In February, the organization tweeted: “Every day we are thankful for the community of #DigitalDefenders that makes this work possible.”
– Andy Jung