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How Anti-Trafficking Agencies Catch Sex Buyers and Fight Sexual Exploitation Online

By April 26, 2019 No Comments

There’s no doubt technology is radically changing the world we live in.

In some cases, that’s for the better.

Take the cell phone, for example: the first of its kind was launched by Motorola in 1983. Costing around $4,000, with a 30 minute call battery life, and about the size of a Subway footlong sub sandwich (can you imagine carrying that around?), this device allowed humans to call others on-the-go without the constraints of wires or portable phone holders for the first time in history.

And, a short 24 years later, that footlong sub of a cell phone transformed into the first generation of the Apple iPhone—basically a supercomputer that fits in your pocket.

Such technological advancement greatly improved efficiency and productivity in most aspects of life. Think about how much more you can do and learn every day because of your phone, right?

You can post a Facebook status, talk on the phone with your mom, listen to your favorite music on Spotify, watch The Office on Netflix, look up the nearest Chipotle—all while you’re on a road trip with your best friend. Crazy, right?

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How is technology being used to fight sex trafficking?

While the example of the cell phone exhibits how positive technological changes make life better, the child porn distribution epidemic on WhatsApp and the former Backpage.com offer dark counterexamples that show how technology can also bring new difficulties to our world.

Related: How The United States Stacks Up In The Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking

In the cases where technology is being used negatively, more specifically through selling sexual exploitation online, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (UIAHT) has found that technology, when used positively, is the best way to fight it.

UIAHT has its hand in a number of different technologically-related projects that help fight sex trafficking. Here are a few that have been making a difference.

How Tampa Bay reaches out to exploited individuals en mass

The first is a pilot program being launched in Tampa Bay, Florida. The goal of the program is to connect with individuals who are being sold online for sex, and the buyers of those individuals, and it uses two forms of technology to do so.

The first innovation they’re using is known as web scraping technology, and its function is to extract phone numbers from online sex-for-sale websites.

Web scraping technology works because sex-for-sale websites are often set up like Craigslist. In other words, type in what you’re looking for, and endless ads will pop up that are full of information about what you’re interested in. However—and here’s the key—all of that information follows a general format within each ad.

Related: By The Numbers: Can Porn Production Be Connected To Sex Trafficking?

This means that the web scraping technology can follow the general format of each ad, locate where phone numbers are, pluck them from their respective ad, and input them into an easy-to-use excel spreadsheet. This saves UIAHT thousands upon thousands of hours of scouring online sex-for-sale ads for phone numbers.

While the web scraping technology allows UIAHT to find a way to communicate with those being sold and those paying for sex online, UIAHT has also been using mass texting technology as the means by which they actually communicate with both groups of people. Mass texting is exactly what it sounds like: it’s sending out a single text message to tons of people—think group texting, but way bigger.

In their work, UIAHT found that most of the numbers on the websites directly link to the cell phones of those being sold for sex, as well as those booking the individuals being sold. So, after identifying 10,000 phone numbers in the Tampa Bay area alone, UIAHT began sending out mass texts to these numbers with a phone number and a website that both offer help to get out of the industry.

Related: Follow The Money: How Banks And Screening Software Fight Sex Trafficking

The results have been incredibly encouraging. In only a matter of weeks, utilizing small blocks of texts, UIAHT received a 13% response rate of people seeking help to leave sexual exploitation.

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How Pasco County catches sex buyers with fake bots

UIAHT has also given a Florida-based Sheriff’s Office a technological tool to help combat online sexual exploitation.

The new technology, called “intercept bots,” allows artificial intelligence bots to message back and forth with sex buyers. This means that, instead of the Sheriff’s Office spending lots of time and money setting up sting operations with actual people posing as individuals selling sex, an infinite number of bots can be working around the clock to collect sex buyers’ information to send to law enforcement.

Related: In Minnesota, Porn Is Now Officially Recognized As A Contributor To Human Trafficking

Like UIAHT’s Tampa Bay pilot program, the Pasco County intercept bots program has also been a great success. The program claims to have 99% accuracy in its ability to target sex buyers through advertising and social media campaigns.

Why This Matters

You may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with porn. We’re glad you asked!

It is undeniable that the porn industry is inextricably tied to sex trafficking. While not all images and videos on porn sites are trafficking-related, some definitely are—and it can be very difficult or impossible to tell the difference between what is truly consensual and what is exploitative.

Related: 5 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Sex Trafficking In Your Daily Life

Without consumers realizing it, their clicks, downloads, and views may be profiting off of the exploitation of others. And even if those depicted haven’t been trafficked, clicking on porn increases the demand and signals to pornographers that they should create more content, paving the way for possible future exploitation.

We get that giving up porn is tough, but freedom is possible and definitely worth it.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out our friends at Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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