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Keeping Kids Safe in an Ever-Evolving Digital Era

April 20, 2023

6 Minute Read

At Thorn, our vision has always been clear, but the path has not. 

At every step, we have learned and encountered new challenges that have focused our efforts and strengthened our resolve. Our constant has been our focus building solutions that defend children from sexual abuse.

Today, as technology advancements continue to explode, developing in exciting and innovative ways, we find ourselves at a difficult crossroads in our fight to defend children from sexual abuse: one in which the technology that makes our lives easier, more enjoyable, more connected, and more fun, also puts child safety at greater risk than ever before. 

How did we get here, to this place where technology has become such a double-edged sword? And how is Thorn responding to ensure we are on the right path to defend children? Let’s take a closer look.

The History of CSAM – and how it was nearly eliminated

Before widespread use of the internet CSAM was distributed physically via the post office, making it difficult for perpetrators to reach large numbers of people. Eventually, new laws and increased prosecutions made it too risky to trade through the mail. 

And, with that, the problem of CSAM was nearly eliminated.

However, as the internet and digital devices became more widespread, it was easier than ever for bad actors all over the world to create, distribute, and access CSAM. The problem has ballooned to an epic scale.

To put the exponential rise of the problem into perspective: In 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received just 421 reports of CSAM; by 2021, that number was 84,991,735.

Abuse often continues well after a child has been removed from physical harm

Online communities dedicated to child sexual abuse have also grown over time. These communities normalize abusive behaviors and desensitize offenders to the physical and psychological damages inflicted on the exploited children.

Even when a child is removed from an abuse situation, their abuse lives online forever – distributed across these communities. They are revictimized with every viewing, making a full recovery difficult or impossible. Many victims are even recognized from their abuse material in public, in job interviews, and in their personal lives.

Today, child sexual abuse material (CSAM) likely exists on every platform that accepts user-generated content. Consider every digital platform where you can upload a photo or video. Not just the ones meant for photo- and video-sharing, either – even the ones that let you attach files, add images to reviews… the list goes on – these can, and often are, used to share CSAM. That’s thousands of platforms. 

This emerging public health crisis is carving lasting harm across our society.

Thorn is determined to solve a technology problem—with technology

At Thorn, we know that child sexual abuse is happening everywhere – and that, because of the scale of the problem, it takes a systems-level approach to eradicate it. 

Thorn is the world’s largest team solely dedicated to building technology to defend children from sexual abuse. The technology we build is designed to empower the critical set of people on the front lines — tech companies, law enforcement agents, parents, policymakers, and youth — with the tools they need to fight this fight together as a united ecosystem. That’s because if we truly want to build a future where every child is free to be safe, curious, and happy, we must empower all the stakeholders who have a hand in protecting children. 

Here’s our multifaceted approach:

1. Find children faster.

When evidence of a child’s sexual abuse hits the internet, our solutions drastically reduce the time it takes to find child victims. Our tools directly connect investigators and NGOs with critical information to help them solve cases faster and remove children from harm.

2. Stop revictimization.

We equip tech platforms with innovative tools, insights, and connections needed to end the spread of abuse content and stop revictimization. Our industry tool Safer is designed to help tech companies to detect, review, and report abuse imagery at scale.

To date, Thorn has helped the tech industry remove over one million child sexual abuse files from the open web.

3. Empower parents and youth to prevent abuse. 

Today’s children grow up with phones in their hands and – depending on their ages – near-constant access to social networking, messaging, and gaming platforms.

Thorn for Parents helps equip parents with skills and resources to have meaningful, productive, and judgment-free conversations to prevent abuse.

NoFiltr is a youth-focused prevention program that seeks to increase awareness among youth about the risks of sharing nudes online, change toxic attitudes that shame victims, and provide the knowledge and tools they need to resist online threats.

4. Connect and move the entire child safety ecosystem with original, ground-breaking research. 

Thorn conducts original, comprehensive research that allows us and our partners across the entire ecosystem better understand the real experiences of youth today. That research allows us to build programs to empower kids and their communities; to stay on top of emerging technologies and prepare for the future of using the latest technology to defend children from sexual abuse; and to better arm everyone with a stake in protecting children with the reliable knowledge they need to make tangible change.

5. Influence policy to defend children. 

Thorn is engaging in critical and productive conversations with lawmakers both in the U.S. and overseas — primarily in the EU — to ensure they understand the issue’s nuances and why taking action is essential in this rapidly-changing technological environment. Thorn is interested in aiding policymakers in a way that ensures maximum protection for children.

Thorn’s course of action isn’t set in stone – but why?

Technology itself is nimble, and so Thorn must be, too. 

As new technology emerges, so do the ways in which kids and bad actors use it – and Thorn pivots along with them, empowering the best and brightest minds in technology and child protection to do everything it takes to keep kids safe in the moment we’re in.

And, as long as this problem continues to spread, Thorn will invest in tools and programs that elevate the entire child protection field by improving our technical capacity to address these crimes at scale.

Solving this problem is not easy, but at Thorn, we know it is possible. With those who genuinely care about defending children by our side – including our generous community of donors, other NGO and law enforcement partners, policymakers, and the public – we are an unstoppable team that will not rest until every child is free to simply be a kid.

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