IT-Based Tactics

Among the most significant developments in demand reduction efforts over the past decade is the emergence of new tactics using information technology (IT) to deter sex buyers and develop evidence to apprehend those actively seeking to purchase sex. This evolution of tactics has been a logical response to a shift in the commercial sex market, away from in-person solicitation and toward advertising websites and social media applications. Although Demand Forum has gathered information about demand reduction interventions in the United States for over 10 years, our tracking of technology-driven tactics is a recent development. Accurately representing the range of IT-driven tactics and their deployment within the U.S. requires a rigorous and systematic information collection process, and for this purpose a grant was awarded to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). The work began in January 2021.

Demand Forum staff have learned of more than 78 U.S. cities and counties in which IT-based tactics have been implemented. Please note that the count of sites using IT-based tactics represents a lower limit. The true prevalence of these approaches is certainly much greater, but those developing and implementing these tactics believe that it is advantageous, for operational purposes, not to publicly disclose much about where these tactics have been (or currently are) in use. The number of cities and counties in which sex buyers have been exposed to deterrence messages via these tactics is certainly in the hundreds, if not more. We base our count for Demand Forum purposes on the number of cities and counties in which these tools have been deployed by Streetgrace in collaboration with local law enforcement partners. Other tools developed by other organizations have been deployed in dozens of additional cities and counties, but many collaborators using IT based tactics do not wish the jurisdictions to be identified, believing that doing so would undermine their effectiveness.

Available numbers shared by Street Grace and EPIK provide a glimpse into the reach of their tactics. For instance, Street Grace has been operational since 2009, but made available quantitative insights for a five-month period during the 2021 and 2022 period of this research. During a period of five months, Street Grace achieved more than 1,000 intercepts per month (at a minimum of 5,000 intercepts for the 5-month period), the exchange of more than 54,000 messages with potential sex buyers, and reported more than 6,000 suspects to law enforcement agencies. Over a period of 10 years, EPIK has logged over 250,000 attempts by an estimated 125,000 men intent on buying sex. These too, are conservative numbers as various facets of their operations are subject to issues of data protection, privacy, and confidentiality within collaborative relationships with law enforcement agencies. The information we report, including the disclosure of the cities and counties known to have used the technology, has been reviewed and approved by the developers of the major products.

To learn more about IT-Based Tactics and how they have been implemented, please see our Summary Document (March 2023) as well as the links to resources provided below. You may also locate where in the United States that this tactic has been used by visiting Demand Forum’s mapping or listing function, and selecting from the list of tactics. By clicking on each of the cities and counties listed or mapped, you may access brief summaries of the implementation of each tactic that community, and links to source documentation. Please note that unlike the other 14 tactics, detailed information about the implementation of the tactic in each separate city or county has not been made public, so we cannot provide links to all of the communities in which IT Based Tactics have been used.

The separate IT products we have identified so far have common elements, but also vary substantially in their capabilities and how they have been deployed.  All of these technologies share the capacity to continuously “scrape” data or monitor “signal” from open-source electronic communications, analyze the raw input, and flag messages as probably depicting a commercial sex offer or transaction. Artificial intelligence (AI) and BOTS facilitate those processes, all of which fundamentally seek to identify and diagnose patterns that indicate sex buying activity.

The dimensions of variation among the separate products and how they are used to reduce demand for commercial sex begins with their focus. Some target the identification and deterrence of sex buyers (our focus here), while other programs are used primarily to (a) identify pimps and traffickers posting online ads or infiltrating social media, (b) to identify victims, or (c) to analyze local commercial sex and trafficking markets. From our preliminary assessments, we also found that this type of technology focused on targeting sex buyers can be used in several distinct modes of interaction with both the buyers and with law enforcement or others seeking to deter them: 

  • They may operate in fully automated mode, constantly scanning websites or social media communications, identifying potential sex buyers, and then responding with deterrence messages. 
  • They may continuously scan and then alert law enforcement personnel when cases are identified that meet the criteria that has been set (e.g., individuals seeking to purchase sex with children), at which point police may respond by launching an investigation or a sting operation.
  • The technology may be programmed to scan a set time period during a sting or deterrence operation; the program identifies potential sex buyers, and then program personnel respond by making contact and delivering deterrence messages.

To illustrate the kinds of new methods and products that have been developed, and the common features and dimensions of variation among them, the following table summarizes the objectives, features, and use of four implemented initiatives featuring digital technologies.

Technology/ Program Name  Objectives  Description  Implementation
Childsafe.AI  Combat online facilitation of child sexual exploitation; deter sex buyers; provide investigative intelligence to law enforcement agencies. Automated scans of online ads detects CSE and trafficking, alerts law enforcement agencies (LEAs); LEAS may plan stings, or allow automated deterrence engagements by AI chatbots.Tools, training, technical assistance provided to LEAs in dozens of US cities and counties; over 17,000 sex buyers engaged by Childsafe bots in at least five National Johns Suppression Initiative operations 2018-2020.  
Freedom Signal (Seattle Against Slavery)Identify instances of online facilitation of CSE & trafficking; deter sex buyers; disrupt markets; aid LEAs in prevention and investigation; victim identification and outreach.AI software interrupts buyers during search and purchase processes; uses buyer search keywords to target deterrence messaging;  bots build profiles of buyers then use them to reinforce deterrence messaging; bot poses as  provider and engage in online conversations with buyers and/or redirects them to deterrence websitesLaunched in 2018.  Developed in partnership with Microsoft. Tools and training provided to LEAs in dozens of US cities and counties; over 15,000 sex purchases disrupted by bots within first year.  
Transaction Intercept ( commercial sex transactions before they occur, at point of purchase.  Particular focus on disrupting purchase of minors.  Posts decoy ads, identify potential sex buyers. AI chatbots deployed to engage buyers. When    intention to purchase a minor is confirmed, bot communicates risks & consequences, provides trauma & therapy resources. Launched in 2018;  developed in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Kennesaw State University, advertising agency BBDO.   
(The Epik Project)
Uses technology to assist disrupting online purchase of sex at point of sale. Functions as cyber “neighborhood watch” program, providing LEAs with actionable information for deterring CSE & sex trafficking.Do not provide details about their online tactics, but disclose that technology includes combination of SMS, voicebots, chatbots, & AI.  Once identified by IT, human volunteers engage sex buyers in deterrence conversations.Founded in 2012.  Through early 2020, documented disruption of over 178,000 attempts by roughly 90,000 men intent on purchasing sex via the internet. Trained over 250 volunteers in 14 US cities.

Examples of jurisdictions known to have used Bots and other IT to intercept and deter sex buyers includes: