At this month’s CEASE Network webinar, Robert Beiser, Executive Director of Seattle Against Slavery, demonstrated the successful implementation of two technology platforms—through a philanthropic initiative called Project Intercept—that address both the supply and demand of sex trafficking. The products have been developed over the past year in partnership with volunteers who work at Microsoft.
The first innovation, Victim Reachout, uses software to search for phone numbers in paid sex ads, then sends text messages offering exit services to the potential trafficking victims it identifies. So far, it’s reached out to about 4,000 phone numbers of people potentially being harmed across 12 cities, resulting in 424 positive conversations in just one pilot city, including 42 in-person meetings where the individuals were offered exit and support services. According to Robert, previously organizations mainly used street outreach to connect with potential victims, requiring a lot of volunteer or employee time and training but yielding fewer connections of trafficking victims to services.
A second component of Project Intercept is a “chatbot”—artificial-intelligence software set up to conduct an automated conversation. When potential buyers contact a phone number listed in fake ads for paid sex, they enter into a conversation with the program. As the chatbot and potential buyer are messaging back and forth, the technology gathers information about the buyer by searching public information on the phone number that’s used—such as whose name it’s registered to, and in what zip code. The system even asks potential buyers to send photos of themselves, and many do.
This tool simultaneously:
- Wastes a potential buyer’s time
- Gathers information on the person
- Sends a deterrence message letting the person know that their information has been given to law enforcement, and including a link to a support website for men who want to stop buying sex (In Seattle, the link goes to Peter Qualliotine’s class, which Demand Abolition supports. In other cities, the link is to a general resource, sexhelp.com.)
The chatbot can conduct thousands of conversations at a time, and it’s available to talk 24/7, so it reduces human resources needed to deter buyers. Since it launched, it’s sent over 25,000 messages to potential buyers in three cities: Atlanta, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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