My newest article for Engadget just published: Sex, lies, and surveillance: Something's wrong with the war on sex trafficking. I thought you might be interested to know what what into it.
I spoke to confidential sources on background at seven major internet and technology companies. I spoke personally with three high-profile information security professionals who have worked (or currently work) with the type of tech under Safer's hood. I sent interview questions to Google, Twitter, Facebook, Thorn, its product team at Safer, and Polaris Project. I attended the Sexual Content, & Child Protection conference and solicited quotes from the event organizer and the Executive Director of Prostasia Foundation. I also briefly consulted a friend who researches nonprofits for a living.
In addition, I worked on unraveling the mess of 31 anti-trafficking organizations, their words and deeds, their histories and connections (and more) every day, beginning with an email I received about Polaris Project on May 1st. In the last two weeks, I pulled four twelve-hour days, and annoyed my editor with up-to-the-wire double-checks on facts, quotes, and links.
Ultimately, not all my work went into the final article. And I have a few thoughts on what I saw and experienced.
I like red string and I cannot lie
Let me begin by saying that researching the issue of child exploitation material online, and the people and tools combating it, takes a psychological toll. The people trying to solve this problem are doing incredibly difficult, terrible, hard work. It is work no one else wants to do, but they do it because they have a duty: they know other people cannot deal with it, and so they step up to the plate. I believe the general public is so horrified and terrified by the issue that most people simply trust that the people working on the problem are doing what needs to be done.
This means that the anti-child-exploitation organizations lying about stats, survivor stories, commanding large donations to forcibly "save" people who don't want it, and who steamroll over the lives of sex workers are among the most reprehensible people imaginable. Especially those who have taken steps (like FOSTA) to make the problem of child exploitation worse. And it has.
That said, I believe confusion is a tool favored by oppressors and abusers. The anti-trafficking industry is very confusing. So as you can see in the photo above of the chart on my kitchen wall right now, I got out the "red string."
My starting question was, "Who is Thorn, and what do they do?" What I found was an unraveled ball of yarn through which flows hundreds of millions of dollars, a ton of false statistics, a lot of conservative evangelical christians, a toxic ocean of colonialism, a bottomless well of sexism, and zero fact checks coming to light.
Let me speak to Thorn's credit. They are trying to solve a difficult problem with the potentials of new and developing technologies. At the heart of this discussion, this is what we want these technologies to do: stop abusers.
And I did not expect Thorn to respond to my questions. They have a reputation for not talking to critical journalists. This article for Engadget appears to be the first time one of the highest-profile anti-trafficking organizations in the United States has publicly acknowledged the existence of sex workers -- on the record. That alone is a hell of an accomplishment, and hopefully a turning point. Thorn's CEO could have ignored that question. She did not, and I give her props for facing it.
In the photo above, you see Thorn at the center. Beneath the name are their two products -- their public products, anyway.
I say that because Polaris Project, another huge name in the tech-sex-trafficking space, is deeply intertwined with Palantir, and they don't talk about what they're doing. They have "numerous" projects with Palantir. Given the utter disregard Polaris has for the sanctity, safety, and privacy of the lives of millions of sex workers worldwide, this is something everyone should find deeply disturbing. For they are acting cavalierly, dangerously, and probably lawlessly, toward the women, people of color, and LGBTQ populations that largely comprise the sector of sex work. My hunch is that if we're worried about what Thorn is up to, whatever Polaris is doing is likely much worse.
So I think Thorn was like, oooh let's pivot to big data, analytics, and AI. They took $ballofdata and made a GUI for social platforms (Safer), and one for law enforcement (Spotlight). I have to wonder how it's going with Spotlight now that FOSTA -- and over-eager sex censors at major websites and companies like Cloudflare -- have wiped that data off the face of the internet.
Anyway, on the left are all the companies Thorn partners with. Well, the ones they did at the beginning of my investigation. After I sent interview questions to Thorn, they removed seven companies from their "partners" page.
I wanted to understand what "partnership" meant to Thorn.
Some of Thorn's partner companies do cloud-style data wrangling, and we can expect that some are doing tech support around image hashing.
Others are social platforms, who manage tons of PII, collected through their various legal and quasi-legal means. Implied situational consent. Those companies decide to can speak publicly and what we can say, and basically, who gets to exist. We don't know if these companies are sharing data with orgs like Thorn, nor do we know if orgs like Thorn are aiding in the companies' policies.
These are important questions. I can easily imagine another Cambridge Analytica moment here. What was unusual about this article for me was that, consistently for the past few years, Google and Facebook usually respond to my requests for comment. Even when I ask them questions they don't like. This time they did not. That's weird.
I asked Thorn CEO Julie Cordua: Facebook has cited you as a "long-standing" partner. Can you tell us more about your work and relationship with Facebook? She replied:
We've worked with Facebook in two key areas - first is in combating the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM, legally called child pornography) and in our initiatives to educate around sextortion. On the CSAM front, we have shared best practices and they have invested resources in helping us identify new solutions for the field. On the sextortion front, they supported us in developing the stop sextortion campaign and helped us spread the word with that initiative.
One category of companies Thorn partners with does what I call non-consensual data collection, and the creation of dossiers on citizens without their knowledge (or ability to correct, or request removal of their info). Like Palantir. A number of those companies are in the identity verification business: they unmask anonymous users.
On the right are Thorn's partnered nonprofits. That's where things get creepy for different reasons. Out of 31 partners, only four do not target consenting adults. Half are evangelical; christian is the only faith represented across all of the orgs.
A number of them state on their websites that if an adult woman says she is engaging in consensual sex work, they do not believe her. I can't stress how problematic this is in America right now, where women are fighting for control of our own bodies, to not have the state force us into being "host bodies" -- and we are losing. Most Thorn partners want to "abolish" sex work. As in, just make it go away. Spoiler: it won't, and sex workers will die.
The artwork for my Engadget article, by award-winning artist Koren Shadmi, is based on what I saw and experienced on the nonprofits' websites. These are anti-trafficking websites that do not mention labor trafficking. Their use of colonialist language is overhwelming. Nearly all of the organizations have "who we are" pages packed with groups of smiling white people, while the websites are absolutely covered in images (mostly stock photos) of women and children of color. All that, wrapped in the language of saving women from "modern slavery." They all conflate adult sex work with child trafficking (rape). Tell me what it is when a group of white people ignore the agency and consent of an adult Black woman and say they're saving her from slavery. They are "white knights."
I would really like to know how many are on the list of 50 organizations examined in Truthout's Special Report: Money and Lies in Anti-Human Trafficking NGOs. Polaris Project sure is. Many of the anti-trafficking orgs I researched for this investigation -- including Thorn -- create their own "studies," surveys, and whitepapers that exclusively support their own work, and contain moral agendas.
Again, we don't know if Thorn is influencing policy with the companies on the left, but they're in a hell of a position to do so. Is that policy coming from the orgs on the right? In an effort to understand Thorn's relationship with these organizations.
I asked Thorn CEO Julie Cordua: What is Thorn's relationship with the nonprofit partners listed on your website, such as Polaris Project and smaller orgs like GEMS and Breaking Free? She replied:
We work with these partners listed in a variety of ways. With GEMS we have supported their work in the past and have also worked with them on survivor survey to ensure we're hearing directly from survivors and designing our programs/products accordingly. Breaking Free was also a participating organization in our survivor survey. Polaris Project is a leader in the anti-trafficking movement and where our work intersects, in combating child sex trafficking, we often share information or insights.
At the end of this investigation, I'm worried. I have more answers than when I started, but also a lot of questions. This area is an unchecked Wild West, and I've spent a lot of time marinating in the materials of organizations and companies that do not care who they hurt in their quest to save the children.
And as we've seen -- too late -- in regretful essays from technologists about the monsters they've created, like Facebook, that pretty much no one who works in the user big-data and analytics space have thought about (or care) about the ramifications of their work.
I just hope that Prostasia can make themselves the inclusive EFF of this anti-trafficking, money-hoovering, data-dealing, charlatan-free-for-all, as they hope to be.