At a prostitution sting inside a New Orleans hotel, Franklin software engineer John Wagster took ample notes. Two teenage girls had been advertised online and the police officers he accompanied were after their pimps.
Wagster was well acquainted with the horrors of child sex trafficking. His employer, Digital Reasoning in Franklin, had been tapped by Ashton Kutcher’s and Demi Moore’s nonprofit called Thorn to develop software that would help law enforcement officers rescue victims more quickly. The Louisiana police were using Digital Reasoning’s new software and Wagster wanted to refine it.
The software, called Spotlight, allows law enforcement to find online ads most likely advertising underage girls being trafficked and to significantly reduce investigation time. That means more time to find other victims and save more young girls. In the case of the New Orleans sting, law enforcement’s first two calls proved to be girls controlled by pimps, Wagster said.
“They finished the night an hour ahead of schedule,” Wagster said. “They were way more effective because of it.”
Since launching in 2014, Digital Reasoning’s software tool has helped rescue 6,000 sex trafficking victims, a third of whom are children. Spotlight is used by 4,000 law enforcement officers nationwide and it is now helping find victims in Canada.
“This is the most widely used sex trafficking investigations tool in the world,” said Thorn CEO Julie Cordua. “You are cutting the time to get to this child almost by half but then also doubling the capacity of the existing officers out there doing this work.”
Thorn, based in Los Angeles, was created four years ago by actors Kutcher and Moore to combat online child sex abuse. They observed an online marketplace rampant with escort ads, many of which featured underage teens and children. The massive volume of the online ads was hampering law enforcement’s abilities to rescue victims, Cordua said.
Based on interviews with hundreds of rescued girls, Thorn had determined patterns that often show up when an ad is for a child, and the nonprofit sought to use computer software to identify ads based on those patterns. In search of a tech partner that could develop the algorithm, Cordua cold-called Digital Reasoning, which had been developing a national reputation for its cognitive computing methods.
“To their incredible credit, they said, ‘Yes, we will do this with you,’” Cordua said.
Digital Reasoning President Tim Estes created the company in 2000. He was a recent college graduate and had developed software that could analyze vast quantities of communications. By 2012, when Thorn reached out to Digital Reasoning, the company had landed contracts with the federal government to assist with intelligence gathering and with leading financial institutions on compliance.
More recently the company, staffed with nearly 200 employees globally, has begun working with HCA on health care data. Since 2014, the company has raised more than $76 million from Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Nasdaq and other investors.
Estes said when the call came from Thorn, his team was eager to join their work.
“They showed us the chilling growth in exploiting children online that had happened in the last seven to 10 years,” Estes said. “It was very compelling and became a big moral mission for us.”
Bill DiPietro, head of Digital Reasoning’s product management, and Wagster led the development of the algorithm, working with law enforcement in California and Arizona to study the challenges they faced and their methods. At the time, some law enforcement officers were using Google searches and relying on pencil and paper to find victims and set up stings, Wagster said.
Wagster, called “Wags,” observed what clues agents looked for when scanning online ads and trained the software to automate that part of their search process. The software could then point them to the most promising leads.
“The whole goal of what we are trying to do is build software that can do some of the repetitive or redundant tasks on behalf of knowledge workers,” DiPietro said. “Wags was giving them a list, here is the priority. If you are going to call girls, start here and work your way down. That was proving some of the success.”
Spotlight does not replace the role of officers in any way, but it makes them more efficient, Wagster said.
“A big part of Spotlight is empowering officers to feel like they have the ability to pivot and to search through the data to come to their own conclusions,” Wagster said. “It’s about building a tool that lets them do their job.”
Thorn raised funds from the private sector, including from the McCain Institute in Arizona, to build out the full application. The tools were provided to law enforcement agencies for free.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, has made human and sex trafficking a focal point of his leadership through his End Modern Slavery initiative and praised Digital Reasoning’s contributions.
“It is really helping solve the problem, saving years and years of work that it would take, in some cases, to apprehend folks,” Corker said. “This is morally unambiguous and represents a threat to every community, and here they are.”
At Corker’s invitation, Kutcher gave a sobering testimony in February to the U.S. Congress on child sex abuse. During his address, he pointed to Digital Reasoning’s role, as well as the value of private and public partnerships in solving this problem.
“The benefit of being a nonprofit and building these types of technology and being 100 percent privately funded is that we can move as quickly as we want and we talk directly to the officers and build what they need,” Cordua said.
Amid the lengthy resume each of the Digital Reasoning leaders is accumulating, they have pointed to their work with Thorn as a high point in their career, if not their most meaningful project.
“Any time you get to work on being a mission-driven organization, it’s very rewarding,” DiPietro said. “Technologically, it’s an interesting problem and a hard problem to solve. On top of that, it’s for a great mission.”
Cordua said Thorn is exploring further partnership with law enforcement agencies to improve Spotlight’s capabilities with more data, including criminal records.
Meanwhile, new Senate legislation sponsored by Corker has been introduced in recent weeks to improve data collection and reporting on human trafficking crimes and to extend programs targeting the issue.
“We talk about rescuing juveniles, but there are a lot of criminals who are making money off those juveniles and only a fraction of them have really been prosecuted because we don’t have that data,” Estes said. “If we can connect that together, then that’s the next story.”