The Internet has made it easier for children to be bought and sold online, because it has created a marketplace for purchasers to conduct illegal transactions and for exploiters to profit from the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Law enforcement doesn’t have enough time to navigate the online commercial sex market to find children and identify their perpetrators. This is due, in large part, to the enormity and complexity of this illicit environment. Child sex trafficking investigations are labor intensive and law enforcement often times works with very little factual information. Much of the information in the ads for children are fake. Furthermore, identifying leads and making connections between phone numbers, photos, and post ID’s is also complicated and time-consuming. Finally, the preservation of evidence is a challenge when ads are periodically taken down.
Our Spotlight tool addresses these challenges by taking this massive amount of publicly available data, analyzing it and using it to help prioritize cases for law enforcement. The tool improves the effectiveness and efficiency of domestic minor sex trafficking investigations and increases the number of victims who are identified and connected to services.
Why tech innovation matters in the fight to end child sex trafficking
It was a warm muggy night in New Orleans and some members from Thorn and Digital Reasoning – one of our tech partners – had joined the Louisiana State Police (LSP) on a hotel sting operation to find victims of child sex trafficking. That’s how we met Karina who had been dropped off by her 32-year-old pimp at the hotel two hours into the operation. Karina was 17 years old, scared and under the control of a particularly violent trafficker. The hope for Thorn and Digital Reasoning that night was to observe how the LSP used Spotlight to locate girls and boys like Karina, and ultimately continue to improve the tool’s ability to shorten the time of their exploitation.
This journey began in 2012, when Thorn sought out to explore whether or not we could develop a technology tool that utilized advanced cognitive-computing based analytics to quickly organize and provide intelligence within the chaotic online commercial sex market. We wanted to know if this technology could be smart enough to reveal information that is intentionally concealed and constantly changing. Spotlight was conceived with these questions in mind and built to support the investigation efforts of law enforcement, like the LSP, to find child sex trafficking victims.
Lieutenant Chad Gremillion of the LSP, and the lead on the Spotlight sting operation in New Orleans the night we met Karina, can attest to the power of the tool.
“Seeing Spotlight in action reinforces the idea that we can use technology for good. This is such an incredibly powerful tool in our effort to locate trafficking victims and get them connected to services. It’s also made our jobs easier in finding offenders, which is exactly what we did after identifying Karina. With the help of Spotlight, we not only arrested her trafficker, but he’s now looking at 30 years to life in prison. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for her and for this case.”
In less than four months, Spotlight’s user base has grown from around 100 law enforcement personnel to over 1,000 personnel across 43 states; and the more users we have the better Spotlight works in identifying human trafficking networks.
The success of Spotlight to identify these illicit networks was recently highlighted after surveying our users, where they reported that on average the tool has reduced the time it takes to conduct a child sex trafficking investigation by 45%. Furthermore, since launching Spotlight in October 2014, our law enforcement users have used our technology in over 1,000 human trafficking investigations and have identified close to 400 victims and 80 traffickers.
This tool is free to law enforcement, so we are asking folks to let their local law enforcement agencies know to sign up for Spotlight. They can do this by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we can provide law enforcement with human trafficking intelligence and insight, and help these victims find a way out.
 Names and other identifying information has been altered for this story to protect the anonymity of those involved in the case.