Tech Startup Thorn Takes Aim at Child Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking

The company, cofounded by actor Ashton Kutcher, develops tools to help identify victims and catch criminals

3 min read

Photograph showing the hands of a youth on a laptop.
Photo: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEThe sexual exploitation and trafficking of children is a serious problem worldwide. Children account for nearly one-third of identified trafficking victims globally, according to UNICEF. Today’s technology provides traffickers with convenient ways to reach abusers around the world. The traffickers use the Web, mobile devices, and social media to advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with minors.

Smartphone cameras, portable video recorders, and image-creation tools are used to produce child pornography, which is then shared on the Internet, collected on thumb drives, and traded through the cloud. Tools that provide anonymity and encryption have enhanced the offenders’ ability to evade detection by law enforcement.

But technology also can be used to combat the­ scourge by helping police identify victims faster and reduce the spread of child pornography. The nonprofit technology company Thorn, through its products and awareness programs, has helped identify nearly 6,000 child sex-trafficking victims and more than 6,550 traffickers, and rescue 100 victims of child abuse.

The nonprofit technology company Thorn, founded five years ago by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, has helped to identify nearly 6,000 child sex trafficking victims and more than 6,550 traffickers, and rescue 100 victims of child abuse (see video below).

“Our goal is to eliminate child sexual abuse from the Internet,” says IEEE Member Ruben Van der Dussen, the director of Thorn’s innovation lab. “We support companies, law enforcement, and nongovernmental organizations by building technology.”


Thorn develops tools to help law enforcement identify victims, software to help companies spot and eliminate child pornography and other sex-abuse materials from their platforms, and programs to bring awareness to the problems.

Van der Dussen says he can’t describe how the tools work in detail, because that could jeopardize investigations. But he does say the company’s Web-based law enforcement tool Spotlight is being used by more than 7,000 officers in the United States and Canada and that they report it has reduced case investigation time by as much as 65 percent in some cases.

“Spotlight helps the officers figure out where to focus their investigation,” Van der Dussen says. “We help them prioritize and build out the case, but it’s the officers who complete the last mile. By providing the tools, we’ve been able to have quite a bit of success in finding victims.”

Any company that lets its customers or the general public upload content can be a platform for abuse. That’s why Thorn is also developing a product for small businesses and midsize companies to automatically identify and remove inappropriate material from their websites and social media platforms.

“Oftentimes these smaller companies don’t have the time and resources to figure out whether content that’s been uploaded is child sexual abuse material,” Van der Dussen says. “Our software can be easily integrated into their product, and doesn’t require them to develop a new technology. This enables the company to focus on its core product while keeping its website safe from abusers.”


Previously Thorn worked with researchers at Texas Christian University and other institutions to survey survivors about their experiences. That led to a better understanding of the role technology played. The institutions have produced several reports and materials that Thorn has used to help those working to combat child trafficking, according to Van der Dussen.

Thorn also has partnered with Amazon Web Services, Digital Reasoning, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other companies. With its partners, Thorn works on best practices for screening platforms for child pornography and stays on top of emerging technologies to combat child trafficking and exploitation.

Van der Dussen says engineers need to be cognizant of the fact that their systems can be leveraged by traffickers and other bad actors who are adept at exploiting emerging technology.

 “It is important to think about the impact of the technologies we build,” he says, “not only on an organizational level but also on an individual level.”

Although Thorn workers do not always encounter the best side of humanity, Van der Dussen says he is heartened by the dedicated community of people working together to combat child trafficking and abuse.

“It does give me a lot of hope and energy that together, we will be able to solve this problem,” he says.

Thorn cofounder Ashton Kutcher testifies before the U.S. Congress about human trafficking and child sexual abuse and what his company is doing to combat it.Video: ABC News

This article appears in the March 2020 print issue as “Tech Startup Thorn Takes Aim at Child Sexual Exploitation.”

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