Success In the Field

Fighting Child Exploitation Through Intelligent Technology

By February 6, 2016 April 20th, 2023 No Comments

The following post was submitted by Tim Estes, CEO and Founder of Digital Reasoning, one of our technology partners. Digital Reasoning employs a machine-learning platform that automates the understanding of human communications.

In 2000, everyone was starting a business. The dot com bubble still looked like endless progress, there was talk about a whole new economy, and millionaires were funding companies with no products and very little experience. There was a lot of hype.

With this backdrop, I was a 3rd year Philosophy student at the University of Virginia thinking why is the software I use every day not able to learn? It was obvious to me that software would be better if every time I used it—it would learn.  Surely, someday all software would learn. And that was software everyone should own. I wanted to build that company. So I did.

Digital Reasoning’s moral mission is to build software that can be used for the greater good of humanity. In the shadow of 9-11, we believed that intelligent technology would protect the innocent by connecting the dots at a scale impossible for human beings. While we knew there were broader applications than national security, that community and mission drove us for a decade as we validated our technology. We proved that you could understand human language with machines in ways that could see hidden patterns in huge mountains of “chatter” from many different sources. And that’s when we met Thorn.

“Where do we sign up?”

In 2012 we had just learned about Thorn and were very intrigued by what they were driven to do – who doesn’t want to stop children from being exploited online? Yet, we were wholly unprepared for the breadth of exploitation they revealed to us. Thorn had done the research that showed us the dark side of this “new economy.” We learned that there is an industry where young children are manipulated, pressured, or abused into both posting ads for sex or pictures online. And not only that — this industry is BOOMING. 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.

It literally was a look into the heart of darkness in our modern online society. It made us sad and it made us angry. And we, like Thorn, decided that we could not do nothing while far too many lives were being destroyed. In that moment we joined the fight against child sexual exploitation.

Digital Reasoning and Thorn apply intelligent technology to the fight against child sexual exploitation

Partnering with Thorn to end this type of exploitation was perhaps the strongest embodiment of our company’s mission to use intelligent technology to protect people to date, and it has been completely intertwined in our mission since that first meeting.

Over the past three years with Thorn, we’ve proven novel analytics on online data that was thought to be impossible, and in the process, helped law enforcement identify victimized children. A year ago on Super Bowl Sunday, we saw Spotlight in action, being used for the first time during a large-scale operation. The tool was one of the first software of its kind that could learn from online data by understanding human language from many sources, and use that knowledge base to counter sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors. Thanks to the support of Thorn and their donors, this tool was made available for free to human trafficking investigators, ensuring that every team that might benefit from this tool could.

Today, Spotlight is operating in nearly every state in the country and supporting hundreds of law enforcement agencies. We know that the Spotlight system has helped Vice teams and anti-human trafficking units all over the country identify and support hundreds of exploited children. The work is just beginning, though. We are in year one and there is so much more we need to do.

Speaking as a founder, you build a company to do good things and hopefully become great in its impact. You do it “to make a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said. Thorn is making a dent in the universe and, through Spotlight, is shining a light into the darkest places. We are proud to partner with Thorn and will continue to stand on that line against the darkness as long as they need us. We invite you to join us, too.