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Women in Tech: Applying Machine Learning to Stop Abuse on the Dark Web

By March 24, 2016 February 18th, 2017 No Comments

The following post was submitted by Rebecca Portnoff, who is a Thorn Research Fellow. Rebecca is also a PhD student at UC Berkeley in Computer Science, specializing in Security and Machine Learning. Her dissertation focuses on using Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to analyze, classify and identify criminal elements on the Dark Net.

This blog post is part of Thorn’s “Women in Tech” series in March, which highlights women who have dedicated themselves as Digital Defenders of Children.

There are many ways to address child sex trafficking. It’s one of the greatest evils that continues to persist in our world today and it exists everywhere. The nature of this crime has prompted compassionate individuals from diverse backgrounds to dedicate themselves to this cause. Some are business people, some go into politics, some are full-time activists, and some even spend their days writing code.

This is the track that I’ve chosen: to build tools and techniques that can empower investigators to crack open the recesses of the Dark Net, seeking out and finding the marginalized children who are exploited, abused and taken advantage of.

Applying research in machine learning to find traffickers and abusers

Computer Science is a remarkable field that allows people to build incredible tools – but at the end of the day, those tools we build are still just tools. Personally, I’m not interested in building mechanisms unless they are used to reduce human suffering. As a PhD student in Computer Science, I have the flexibility to set up my own projects and work on efforts that I find both intellectually stimulating and personally meaningful. My research focuses on cyber-security, machine learning and natural language processing – all fields that have produced amazing tools and insights. My goal and desire is to both add to these fields, and use their instruments to analyze and root out the dark corners where traffickers and child abusers spend their time on the Internet.

A shared mission with Thorn

Along the way, I found a great partner in Thorn. Funnily enough, despite our shared space in technology, it actually wasn’t the tech world that first connected me to Thorn, but rather my church. One Sunday I was having a conversation with a friend at church about my research. She immediately told me that I needed to talk with her sister, who at the time worked for an anti-human trafficking NGO called NightLight. Her sister introduced me to one of Thorn’s employees, who in turn connected me to Thorn’s lead Data Scientist. This team of committed individuals not only has the same vision that I do for using tech to combat sexual exploitation, but opened my eyes to even more egregious and heinous abuses against those most vulnerable among us.

The American theologian Frederick Buechner has a famous quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For me, that place is right here, with Thorn. My hope is that the work I do in partnership with them will bring justice and healing to those who feel they have no one to advocate for them. Thorn is a passionate digital defender of children, and I am proud to be one of them.