Newspaper article News Sentinel

Innovation - Digital Reasoning Creates Tool That Has Helped Rescue 6,000 Sex Trafficking Victims

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Innovation - Digital Reasoning Creates Tool That Has Helped Rescue 6,000 Sex Trafficking Victims

Article excerpt

NASHVILLE - 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 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 $64 million from Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Nasdaq and other investors.

Building Spotlight

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. …

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