On Wednesday, actor Ashton Kutcher testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on behalf of Thorn, an anti-sexual exploitation organization he co-founded with Demi Moore. Thorn’s main project is Spotlight, a cloud-based data-collection and analysis tool that purportedly helps police find sex traffickers. According to Kutcher’s testimony before Sen. John McCain and other U.S. lawmakers, the app—funded by the McCain Foundation—has helped save more than 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 minors, in the past 12 months.
But there’s something fishy about these and other stats put forth about Spotlight. According to Cloudera, the company behind Spotlight’s technology, the app was used in 8,305 criminal investigations into sex trafficking between September 2015 and September 2016, identifying 4,624 adult victims and 2,025 minor sex-trafficking victims (defined in the U.S. as anyone under age 18 engaging in prostitution).
These numbers wildly outpace the average number of new criminal investigations into sex trafficking opened in the U.S. each year or average number of victims identified by U.S. law enforcement. For instance, between late 2009 and late 2015, FBI agents working with state and local police across America identified an average of just 175 minor victims per year, according to the Attorney General’s 2015 Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The report also notes that in goverment fiscal-year 2015, the FBI identified around 672 adult and child victims of sex or labor trafficking. The FBI opened 802 human-trafficking investigations (resulting in 453 convictions) that year, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened 1,034 sex- or labor-trafficking investigations (and got 51 sex-trafficking convictions). In addition, Uniform Crime Reporting data from the states indicates that 744 investigations into state-level sex-trafficking offenses were opened in 2015.
There’s almost certainly overlap between the FBI and state investigations. But even if we count all cases separately, we’re looking at a toal of 2,580 investigations into sex or labor trafficking—5,725 less cases than Thorn allegedly helped identify in a one-year period.
While final state and federal data from 2016 has not yet been released, the Justice Department did put out a January 2017 report summing up the previous year’s efforts to combat human trafficking. It mentions neither a significant increase in the number of victims identified or investigations opened in 2016. The FBI and its human-trafficking task force partners among state and local law-enforcement opened around 1,800 investigations into sex- or labor-trafficking last year.
How can Kutcher’s group have helped in dramatically more sex-trafficking investigations than were actually opened across America? I can see two explanations. But first, it’s important to note how Spotlight works. While no one involved will divulge specifics—Kutcher told Congress he “can’t disclose exactly how it works,” and my multiple attempts to communicate with Thorn have gone unanswered—what we do know about the app is that it collects and analyzes adult ads posted to Backpage and similar sites. Using proprietary techniques, Spotlight pinpoints ads allegedly likely to feature sex trafficking.
It’s impossible to know how accurate their method is without more details. But the majority of adult ads on Backpage are posted by sex workers themselves, and the people arrested in cops’ “human trafficking” stings based on these ads are predominantly sex workers and/or men looking to pay other adults for sex. Police might be looking for trafficking victims when they contact ads featuring young-looking women or certain supposed code words, but when their hunches don’t pan out (and this is most of the time), they arrest the target for prostitution.
Considering the data we do have on state and federal human trafficking cases, the only way the numbers from Kutcher’s group could make sense is if a) they’re counting every red-flag ad Spotlight identifies, regardless of whether these tips are ultimately deemed worthwhile enough to prompt a criminal investigation, or b) they’re counting cases of consensual prostitution between adults and lumping all adult sex workers identified into the “adult trafficking victim” numbers.