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Modern slavery

Public-private partnerships help curb online sex trafficking, but more must be done

In mid-October, 149 sexually exploited children and teenagers were rescued through an FBI trafficking investigation coordinated across 135 U.S. cities. The operation went far beyond just cracking down on a handful of sex traffickers and pimps. Rather, it was a driven investigation into the darkest recesses of the Web, focusing in particular on the online sex classifieds Website Backpage.com, which traffickers and pimps had used to exploit minors.

The October bust raised fresh attention about online sexual exploitation of women and children, which according to the FBI is the “fastest growing crime” in the United States and the third-largest type of organized crime worldwide. The numbers are startling: a 2010 report from the Justice Department estimates that at least 200,000 children are trafficked for sex in the United States each year; three quarters of them online. Globally, children account for 27 percent of sex trafficking victims. It has become a huge business, generating approximately $32 billion a year, according to the UN. The business is increasingly facilitated through the Internet’s underworld, where the “dark web,” private peer-to-peer messaging, and virtual currencies allow perpetrators to operate discretely.

Stopping these criminals, and the online infrastructure they rely on to operate, requires that private companies, government and non-profits come together to pool their collective resources, expertise and legal authority.

One example of such meaningful collaboration is the partnership between Thomson Reuters Special Services (TRSS), which leverages Thomson Reuters content and solutions to perform focused counterintelligence, cybersecurity, threat, and risk management analyses for national security missions, and Thorn, an NGO active in fighting online child sexual abuse content. This partnership has advanced research into possible recruitment efforts by traffickers on social media. Further, TRSS has been a key partner in the recently announced expansion by Microsoft of their PhotoDNA technology to help accelerate the identification of child sexual abuse imagery online.

A number of additional cross-sector initiatives to deter and disrupt sex trafficking online are also already underway. A remarkable new technology deployed on search engines and peer-to-peer networks will re-direct individuals searching for illicit sexual material to decoy web files or help sites. Internet service providers now flash warnings at the top of different types of search results that child sexual abuse is illegal, and are, impressively, indexing every image of child abuse that has ever been flagged by child protection agencies so that when the image reappears online it can immediately be removed. These developments represent a huge complement to the efforts of law enforcement organizations who have long had little leverage to prevent viewing of illicit online content.

Public-private collaboration has also produced new ways that abuse can be reported and victims can seek help. Since the first national CyberTipline was established by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1998, organizations have worked tirelessly to develop more efficient and technologically smarter methods of reporting. This past July, Microsoft hosted a hackathon that focused on building an entirely new cloud service to serve vulnerable populations using perceptual intelligence and real time data analytics. In partnership with the Polaris National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Twilio and the Salesforce Foundation, Thorn created a text short code for victims to seek assistance through mobile devices. Other organizations have established trafficking innovation labs.

In January, in conjunction with human trafficking awareness month, Thomson Reuters sponsored a hackathon at District Hall in Boston focused on the ‘demand’ side of the equation. Linking programmers with law enforcement and other anti-trafficking experts, it will develop tools that can assist in disrupting the purchasing of these illicit services online.

Thanks in part to the success of these partnerships, sex trafficking prosecutions have not only increased across all fifty states, but the laws have become more comprehensive, allowing law enforcement to respond more efficiently and effectively. NCMEC, moreover, reported 72,000 suspected instances of child exploitative imagery to electronic service providers in 2014 in order to help eliminate such material on the net.

This work by itself isn’t enough. Speaking at a joint Thomson Reuters-Atlantic Council conference in October, Big Data, Bad Actors, leaders in the anti-trafficking space warned that systematic data about trafficking remains a significant challenge. More must be done to better understand the role of the dark web in perpetrating these crimes, as well as to crack down on the proliferation of opaque electronic communications platforms. Although perpetrators have turned to the dark web and these platforms largely due to our success in stopping their efforts elsewhere, it suggests a widening of the “battlefield” that we cannot ignore. As this widening takes place, continued close cooperation between law enforcement, technology companies and non-profits becomes more and more critical too – a nation-wide research study is essential.

As we fight child sexual abuse in this new space, these ongoing partnerships should serve as the hope and the guidepost for the future. Technology, it is often said, is the future. But so, of course, are our children. Safeguarding their lives in an increasingly complex online marketplace is a priority none of us can afford to ignore.

This post was written by Melanie Getreuer, a government analyst for Thomson Reuters Special Services, and originally appeared on The Hill on February 5th, 2016. 

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