I hope all of our community members reading this are healthy and staying safe.

Over the past months, as COVID-19 has spread around the world and impacted all of our lives, here at Thorn we’ve been focused on how these changes could affect the children we serve.

I wanted to take a few moments to share what we’re learning and how we’re responding. 

What we’re learning

For nearly a decade, Thorn has worked at the intersection of law enforcement, industry and NGOs — building the technology to transform our global response to online child sexual abuse. Amidst the current pandemic, this position has allowed us a unique perspective to gain insights into trends across multiple child protection touchpoints.

First, COVID-19 has aggravated an already stressed child sexual abuse material (CSAM) reporting pipeline.

The process to detect and remove child sexual abuse material from the open web relies on 1. tech companies to detect abuse content on their platforms and moderators to triage and report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 2. NCMEC to review suspected abuse content and send alerts to law enforcement, and 3. law enforcement to use investigative techniques to pursue perpetrators and bring at-risk children to safety

Human intelligence, while key to the process, is a finite resource, and technology can be used to complement these efforts. 

In the current situation, the capacity of this pipeline and its ability to scale is being tested. First, many tech platforms have had to furlough content moderators (or have them work from home, where they are unable to review abuse content), meaning more unfiltered, and unprioritized, reports move down the pipeline. This March, NCMEC saw a 106% increase in online abuse reports, as compared to March 2019. While some of this was likely due to a viral report, it may also reflect more overall reports being sent through. These factors could potentially mean higher volumes of lower quality reports going to law enforcement agents who are already going above and beyond to protect children, and the public at large, through an unprecedented crisis.  

Second, demand for child sex trafficking is holding steady and may be taking new forms.

We’ll need months to determine if these are sustained trends or temporary shifts, but what we are seeing from online escort sites — the environments where children are often bought and sold for sex — is a 60% reduction in massage parlor ads specifically, but minimal sustained decrease in other ads for sex. Anecdotally, we’ve also heard from the field instances of vulnerable kids turning to technology, such as live-streaming, to broadcast exploitative streams for survival income. We can hypothesize that economic instability may result in more kids vulnerable to virtual or in-person trafficking as they are without reliable food, shelter, or security.

Third, we’re seeing an increase in online interest in search terms related to child sexual exploitation.

For the last 10 years, we’ve run a search deterrence program that intercepts people searching for CSAM on the open web and directs them to help resources. Since March 1st, we’ve seen a 19% increase in deterrence keyword traffic. We can’t yet attribute this specifically to offenders, but we’re watching this trend and increasing our presence to deliver interventions in these environments.

Fourth, we’re relying on our near-decade of experience in online child protection to hypothesize what this “new normal” may bring.

With more kids and more adults online, we are watching closely for a potential increase in online harms such as grooming and sextortion, and we expect that these already increasing threats will continue to grow. Also on the rise over the last several years is live-streaming abuse. While much of this has historically involved the paid exploitation of children from developing countries by Westerners, live streaming and other tools for virtual abuse may spread more broadly, and more quickly, in the current landscape.

How we’re responding

All of these shifts expose critical risk areas in current efforts to defend children from online exploitation. Thorn is responding to immediate needs by prioritizing and fast-tracking our work in four main areas:

We’re improving automated content moderation and prioritization.

While human review will always play a key role in content moderation, technology can help to automate the most difficult parts of this work and quickly prioritize the most urgent cases. We are doubling down on our work training classifiers and AI to identify and report CSAM with ever-greater levels of precision and incorporating these into Safer, our product for tech companies. These tools will not only save lives right now, but will permanently improve the systems that allow us to remove kids from harm.

We’re increasing the efficiency of trafficking investigations through our law enforcement tools.

Officers trying to find a child victim of sex trafficking need information in real time. To date, our tools have already reduced investigative time by more than 60%. In a noisy data environment, we’re focused on ensuring we’re delivering the most highly relevant, timely and targeted information possible that will help officers get to kids faster.

We’re putting digital resources in the hands of those who need them now.

We are continuing to deploy our search deterrence program, and are seeing an increase in individuals connecting directly to the help resources we provide.

We are also working hard to get resources in front of the increased number of kids at home, who may be more vulnerable or isolated from their usual support networks. In the past two weeks, our youth digital outreach program has reached over 1.6 million kids in abusive or at-risk situations and put them in direct contact with support.

We’re innovating in critical areas like live streaming and grooming.

Early investments we’ve already made in these areas show us where our tools can have maximum impact. As we see where the data takes us, a scalable response to these issues in particular will come with new urgency.

Thorn was founded to protect kids in a world that’s lived increasingly online. We couldn’t have predicted just how quickly a transition to being fully virtual would be. But the products, programs and plans we’ve developed over the past near-decade not only still hold, but are more necessary than ever.

We’ll remain focused on developing solutions that effectively protect children in an ever-changing world. But we must invest in bringing those solutions to the forefront with far greater urgency, and that can only happen through the support of our partners and donors.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing updates as well as resources and tools to support our community. We’re in this together, and we’re grateful every day for all of you who are committed to making sure every child has a chance to just be a kid.

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