The chatbot taking on Seattle’s sex trade

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Media captionWATCH: Dave Lee’s report from Seattle’s red light district

Its creators say the bot is most effective when it poses as a 15-year-old girl.

You can find “her” number within fake messages placed alongside real ads on websites popular with those looking to buy sex.
Naive and innocent, the bot will tell you she is nervous and check that her age is “cool with you”.
If
you say yes, that’s when it’s revealed: you’ve been talking to a
chatbot, and buying sex is a crime that harms women the world over.
It’s
a message designed to shock the recipient into reconsidering their
actions, says Robert Beiser from Seattle Against Slavery.
“For
someone who thinks they’re anonymous, who thinks they can go on the
internet and buy another human being, it’s a big wake-up call.”

‘Forgotten’

The
tool is part of groundbreaking efforts in Seattle to fight sex
trafficking, an industry that like many others has moved online, and in
doing so has become acutely difficult to prevent.
Men no longer
need to go to the dangerous and unpredictable red light district.
Instead, these digital curb crawlers can buy women using a smartphone.
It’s a safer system, but only for the men.
“It was very violent,” remembers Stephanie Harris, a former sex worker turned advocate for ending the trade.

Image caption

Stephanie Harris says she was left in hotel rooms for months on end

“I had a quota that I had to meet every day. I stayed in hotels for months at a time, the same room.
“Those
four walls… I remember having the TV playing just so there was noise.
I remember sitting in there and thinking the whole world had forgotten
about me.”
Using chatbots, and machine learning, specialists here
believe they can simultaneously achieve two huge goals: deter men, and
help women.

‘Mass exploitation’

The internet has removed some of the psychological barriers and dangers of engaging with prostitutes.
“The
growth of the internet has expanded the marketplace dramatically,” says
Val Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, a
region that covers the city of Seattle.
“We found over 130
websites where you can buy sex in the Seattle area alone. One of those
websites was averaging 34,000 ads a month last year.
“Our
experience has been that there are hundreds and hundreds of people in
our area being exploited, and we think there are up to 300-500 children
being exploited at any one time.”
One effective way of tackling
the crisis has been to re-insert those psychological barriers, forcing
morality into the minds of men with a reminder that what they’re trying
to do is wrong.
But this approach is extremely resource-intensive, often requiring specialists to engage one-on-one with the “John”.
“We know that there are thousands of buyers online at any time of the day or night,” Mr Richey says.
“When
we post a fake ad, we’ll get 250 responses in the first two hours.
There’s no way that law enforcement has the capacity to respond to that.

“The chat bot allows us to connect with and deter all of those buyers online at any time. We’ve never been able to do that.”

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Lifelike responses

The
challenge for developers was to make sure this chatbot was authentic.
Any unusual behaviour, or nonsensical response, would tip off the
target.

Image caption

Real Escape from the Sex Trade (Rest) offers support to women who want to leave prostitution behind

“We work with survivors of trafficking to ask them how a conversation like this would go,” explains Mr Beiser.
It’s
the small touches that help here. Replies aren’t instant. There is
sloppy, bad English. It’s by no means perfect, but during the bot’s test
phase earlier this year, 1,500 people interacted with the bot long
enough to receive the deterrence message – a remarkable completion rate
given the bot will ask for a selfie of the buyer as part of that
conversation.
As more people use the bot, the smarter it could
potentially become. The project has the backing of Microsoft, one of the
tech firms leading the way on natural language research.
The bot isn’t being used to arrest buyers, but that could be one application in future, Mr Beiser says.

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On Aurora

The
second part of efforts here is about helping women get out of the life.
To learn more about that, I visited Aurora Avenue. To an unknowing eye,
it’s not immediately obvious what happens here.
But as Amanda
Hightower begins pointing things out, the telltale signs are everywhere,
such as the fast food restaurant that has pimps watching out onto the
street keeping tabs on “their” women.
Ms Hightower is executive
director of Real Escape from the Sex Trade (Rest). The organisation’s
aim is to provide a safe and secure path for women looking to leave
prostitution. Her work includes everything from giving women shoes and
clothes, to driving to a location in the dead of night to pick up a
woman who has sneaked out while their pimp was not around.
Seattle’s red light district looks precisely how you imagine – liquor stores, cheap motels and run-down car dealerships.
As
we wander up a couple of blocks, we see two women walking together. Ms
Hightower asks us to point our cameras away so she can talk to them
discreetly. The women listen, but only for a polite moment – they know
speaking to Ms Hightower, an instantly recognisable figure with fire-red
hair, could be dangerous.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

A new anti-sex trafficking bill seeks to prosecute websites that encourage ads selling sex

These interactions, which used to be the main way of
reaching trafficked women, are becoming more rare as fewer women use
Aurora Avenue as a way to attract business.
But online, the volume
of ads is too overwhelming for an organisation like Rest to handle. And
so, another piece of software has been developed, one that is able to
spot known codewords and jargon used to evade pitifully dumb filters.
“We
can use this software to scrape the phone numbers of the ads and send
one mass text out to 200 women at one time,” Ms Hightower tells me.
“If they’re in a safe place, they can respond right away.
“Otherwise
they can save the message and respond at a later time when it’s safe to
do so. It’s actually made it easier for us to reach more victims of
trafficking than it was before.”
In some cases women have
contacted Rest months after the text message was sent out. In the past
year, 40 women in Seattle have gone to Rest after being reached by the
tool.

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A real solution

Ms
Hightower thinks the success of this technology could and should be
replicated around the world, though she cautions that it’s not enough to
just contact women – there needs to be more investment in supporting
them once they have left the life. The number-scraping tool has been
rolled out to 12 cities and so far identified 90,000 unique phone
numbers for specialists to contact.
Advocates also back new
legislation to clamp down on websites that facilitate the hosting of
messages advertising the sale of sex.
After a period of disagreement, and worries new laws might be too broad, the major technology companies have finally backed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act – known as Sesta.
It
could mean the owners of Backpage.com, a site described by prosecutors
as a “massive online brothel”, could be held liable for the advertising
that appears on their site. The site declined the BBC’s request for
comment.
In the meantime, the work of Ms Hightower and others continues around the clock.
She
says: “Just yesterday I had a young woman, who’s living in our
residential programme, come up to me and she’s like ‘Amanda! I have a
car, I have a licence, I have insurance! Like… insurance! Legit!’.
“Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile and seem less overwhelming, because we know we’re making a difference.”
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