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.

In the first months of conducting searches, Demand Forum staff learned of more than 25 U.S. cities and counties in which IT-based tactics have been implemented. The true prevalence of these approaches is certainly much greater. This web page and other documentation are interim products, providing a very preliminary report on IT-based tactics in response to soliciting prostitution or purchasing access to sex trafficking victims. A preliminary summary of this type of tactic may be accessed here. We will continue to gather information about this type of tactic and updates will be posted periodically. A Final Report on what we have learned during the NIJ grant research will be posted by June 30, 2021.

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.   
EPIK (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.

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

  • Alameda County, CA
  • Boston, MA
  • Brown County, WI
  • Colorado Springs, CO
  • Cook County, IL
  • Des Moines, WA
  • Foster City, CA
  • Glendale, AZ
  • Houston, TX
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Mesa, AZ
  • McHenry County, IL
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • New York, NY
  • Peoria, AZ
  • Oakland, CA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Portland, OR
  • Seattle, WA
  • Tarrant County, TX
  • Upper Marion Township, PA