This nonprofit morphed into a tech company to fight child trafficking


Child trafficking criminals use technology to operate under the radar online. One nonprofit aptly decided to make technology the main weapon in its fight to stop them.

“I think a lot of times, people look at social issues from the impact angle — which we do,” said Julie Cordua (pictured, right), chief executive officer of Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children. “But we said, ‘What if we looked at it from a different perspective? How can technology disrupt in this area?’ And then we made that the core of what we do.”

Thorn is a five-year-old nonprofit dedicated to stopping child sex trafficking and exploitation. Cordua and Bob Rogers (pictured, left), chief data scientist at Intel Corp., outlined Thorn’s tech-driven mission in an interview during AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas, Nevada. They spoke with theCUBE host John Furrier (@furrier) and guest host Justin Warren (@jpwarren), chief analyst at PivotNine Pty Ltd. TheCUBE is SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile livestreaming studio.  (* Disclosure below.) 

Thorn’s approach has evolved since its inception as a typical nonprofit. It initially aimed to urge tech companies to contribute to the cause. Over time, it evolved into a tech company in its own right, complete with an engineering team. “We have two products used in 23 countries around the world stopping abuse every day,” Cordua said.

The organization raised funds to research and develop its technologies. Instead of bidding for a big government RFP, “We just went and built a tool and gave it to a bunch of police officer, and they said, wow — this works really well, we’re going to keep using it,” Cordua said.

AI for good

Thorn has become a hub that technology experts can plug into and contribute to. Intel is one company that has actively helped develop technology with organization. “The problem of being able to recognize when you’re looking at two images of the same child — which is the piece that we solved for Thorn — actually is a great example of using the current AI capabilities,” said Rogers. Intel also created a way to crowdsource data to improve the accuracy of the deep learning algorithms.

Some may be surprised to learn how prevalent coerced prostitution of minors is inside the U.S., Cordua said. “It happens every single day in almost every city and town across this country.” Each day, 150,000 escort ads are posted in the U.S., she said. “It’s really difficult to look through that with your eyes and determine what’s a child.” Thorn built a tool called Spotlight that reads and analyses the ads with smart algorithms, marking the more suspicious ones. “We’ve had over 6,000 children identified over the last year,” Cordua said.

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Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of AWS re:Invent. (* Disclosure: Intel Corp. sponsored this segment of theCUBE. Neither Intel nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE