Science

Meet the chatbot combating online sex trafficking in Seattle

By Martha Hughes

Machine-learning technology has been developing at a rapid rate in recent years, and now, it’s being implemented to deter online customers of the Seattle sex industry.

Employees at Microsoft have built a chatbot during their spare time as part of an initiative known as ‘Project Intercept’. Working alongside ‘Seattle Against Slavery’, the project aims to deter those fueling and funding the sex trade and, in turn, reduce incentives for those forcing others into the sex industry.

This chatbot is linked to fake adverts on websites such as ‘Backpage’ (a website often referred to as an online brothel). The fake advertisements list a number which is connected to the chatbot; when potential ‘punters’ contact this number, it will reply with realistic answers, similar to those of a sex worker.

The more people who contact the bot, the more it can learn; it will ask about your fetishes, discuss prices and even ask you for a selfie. It will sometimes pose as an underage girl, asking if you are ok with her age. If you reply in the affirmative, the bot quickly replies with a shocking message, warning of the potential harm you could be causing by soliciting sex online. In some cases, the bot will also warn that your details may be passed on to law enforcement who may want to question you further.

So far, this technology has only been put to use in Seattle as a trial; interacting with more than 1500 people long enough to send its message of warning.

With over 130 websites advertising sex for money in Seattle, this type of technology is crucial for outreach groups who are looking to put an end to sex trafficking in their communities. Just one website alone can have up to 34,000 adverts each month; a number just too great for local organisations to tackle. However, with this chatbot, potential buyers in the sex trade can be reminded of the moral consequences of buying a person online.

Because Seattle has found its sex trade has moved online, it has become even more difficult for efforts to prevent sex trafficking as it is harder to track victims and perpetrators hidden behind screens. While this is making the experience feel easier and safer for those purchasing sex, it has done nothing but dehumanize and endanger victims of the sex trade even further.

Also important to consider is the fact that, according to Val Richy, a senior prosecuting attorney in Seattle, 300-500 of these victims are exploited children. This truly highlights the significance of the development of technology which can be used online to fight back against a growing, harmful industry.

Microsoft employees have created further software to reach out to the women behind the numbers listed on other ‘Backpage’ type ads. The programme, named ‘Victim Reach out’ can grab hundreds of numbers at one time from these adverts and send out a mass text offering help.

Local organisations like ‘Real Escape from the Sex Trade’ (also known as ‘REST’) are using this software to contact women who may be victims of trafficking or abuse in the sex industry. With hundreds, if not thousands of adverts online in the Seattle area alone offering sexual services, this type of software is vital for organisations to reach as many of these women as possible in an efficient but effective manner.

‘Seattle Against Slavery’ has begun working with other organisations in multiple U.S. cities with the possibility of sharing and spreading chatbot technology across the country. This could bring the opportunity to squash the industry of sex trafficking to even more communities desperately in need of help.

The sharing of technology such as that used in the ‘Victim Reach out’ software could also benefit victims across the country and the world.

With the tool having brought 40 women to the organisation in Seattle, the executive director of ‘REST’ believes that these efforts are completely worthwhile “because we know we’re making a difference”. However, she does warn that this technology is just the starting point; these victims should not be forgotten once they are plucked out of the sex industry and more support will be required to truly change their lives for the better.

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