This Tech Startup Is Helping the Cops Track Sex Workers Online
Rescue Forensics claims it can scrape "massive quantities of data" from online escort ads and give that information to law enforcement, but advocates for sex workers say that such a service doesn't help anyone.
Photo via Flickr user jemimus
"Big data" and "sex trafficking." That it took so long for someone to combine these buzz terms into one money-making venture is just one of several mysteries surrounding Rescue Forensics, a new startup.
The "big" in the Memphis-based company? Rescue Forensics claims it "archives massive quantities of data from classified advertisement sites specializing in commercial sex ads." It gathers a lot of text, and even more nude and semi-nude photos. Then it turns all that over to the cops.
Rescue Forensics has said it's "making it harder for bad guys to hide on the internet." And while it's hard to quantify that claim, the company certainly achieved some success in attracting investors: Paul Graham's influential Y Combinator incubator selected Rescue Forensics for funding, after which TechCrunch dubbed the service the "software [that] eats sex trafficking." With Rescue Forensics, users can "#tracethetraffickers," as one of its own Facebook memes puts it.
From what I could learn, though, what Rescue Forensics appears to be selling is just one more tool to help cops track people engaged in sex work through their online activities.
Rescue Forensics purports to have brought on more than 100 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). (A spokesperson for one segment of DHS—Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE—said that as far as they could tell, they aren't using the software, while the FBI refused to comment on investigations.)
Rescue Forensics' web copy encourages cops to "stop sending subpoenas." Law enforcement, they're saying, shouldn't bother using the legal process when they can get sex workers' histories of online ads using Rescue Forensics—for a price.
Finding out exactly how Rescue Forensics uses sex workers' data wasn't easy. Co-founder Ryan Dalton wouldn't let me demo the software, so I couldn't verify any of the claims made about what they do. "I don't want to be portrayed as somebody who's hiding the ball," Dalton told me.
So, with his caveats, here's what I could gather: Rescue Forensics is a database with a set of search and flagging tools, possibly custom-built, for law enforcement. It's a more easily searchable mirror of ads for sexual services placed on websites like Backpage.com—though Dalton wouldn't confirm that Backpage.com was one of the websites they collected data from, or give me the names of any other sites that end up in their database.
What this means is that there's a good chance that if you've placed an ad online in the last two years for escorting, massage, BDSM, stripping, private modeling, nude housekeeping, selling your underwear, or any other permutation of the various sexual services people can put on offer, Rescue Forensics has a copy. And because Rescue Forensics has a copy, so do their users in law enforcement.
The tools the company says they provide to police sound pretty powerful: Apparently, through image matching, they can connect photos from deleted classified ads they've archived with existing social media profiles. The only search tool Dalton would tell me about in real detail was something they've built to clean up some of the data, like phone numbers, which advertisers are usually prohibited from typing out in an ad (and so might have obscured with extra characters or spaces). Rescue Forensics' users in law enforcement can more easily search for text that advertisers took steps to conceal.
The rationale for collecting all of these ads, Dalton says, is that sometimes, behind them are people who are "exploited." They can be identified because some ads, he said, "contain suspicious behavior." According to him, those could be "an ad that says someone is 18 years old" or "a photo that shows a person whose body is underdeveloped," "photos with braces," or "babyfat in their face," or "text written in a third person." Rescue Forensics, he added, "gives law enforcement tools to find trafficking victims," in some part based on what's contained in these ads.
That's the whole premise behind the business: Rescue Forensics, a for-profit company, has an innovative solution that publicly-funded law enforcement agencies should buy. But as Kate D'Adamo, national policy advocate for the Sex Workers' Project, told me, "Private individuals and companies like Rescue Forensics policing the internet is not how anti-trafficking work happens."
The Sex Workers' Project assists people who have been engaged in the sex trade, whether through choice, circumstance, or coercion, and routinely represents people who have been trafficked. In the eyes of advocates who work to support actual trafficking victims who may need emergency legal help, housing, or medical care, Rescue Forensics is a product built to solve a poorly defined, if not entirely nonexistent, problem: the lifespan of an online ad. "The assumption that advertising websites do not maintain information," D'Adamo explained, "or that this kind of advertisement is not accessible to law enforcement is not only absurd, it is a willful ignorance."
But for Dalton, the fight against trafficking isn't just about finding the people Rescue Forensics believes are "exploited": It's about abolition. That's how Memphis magazine headlined a 2011 profile of him: "A Modern-Day Abolitionist." That phrase, he told me, "comes from the premise that there are people who are compelled to do things against their will, and that is a lifestyle for those people," including "people who would not choose to be part of the commercial sex industry."
For him, "Abolition is the effort to undermine those criminal enterprises."
Before he co-founded Rescue Forensics, Dalton was a policy advisor to Shared Hope International, a faith-based anti-prostitution organization involved in "rescuing and restoring" people it describes as trafficked. The group claims that demand for commercial sex drives demand for trafficking and argues that websites like Backpage are facilitators of trafficking. They are currently lobbying Congress to redefine men who buy sex as "traffickers." They also organize a men's group called the Defenders, who pledge not to consume porn or any other form of commercial sex.
In their campaign "Demand Justice," Shared Hope makes the claim that "sex trafficking will end only when men stop buying sex." Last August, Dalton authored the campaign's launch announcement, inviting Shared Hope's supporters to become "an ally in the effort to eradicate the market force that fuels sex trafficking and victimizes the vulnerable."
Of sex work generally, Dalton told me, "I know there are people who choose to do that, but I'm not talking about those people... but there's a subset of those ads for people who do not choose that lifestyle."
To date, Dalton told me his company has collected "18 million records" from over 800 cities—a great number of them ads presumably posted by people who are not trafficking victims.
Rescue Forensics defends copying the ads on the grounds that they were public in the first place. But Sarah Jeong, a journalist who covers law and technology for Forbes, contrasted how Rescue Forensics scrapes ads with other websites caught in similar controversies over how they repurpose users' information. (Craigslist—which may be on Rescue Forensics' list of targeted sites—is still in a legal battle over this.)
"What Rescue Forensics is doing is reminiscent of what 3taps and Padmapper were doing right before they were sued by Craigslist," Jeong explained. "3taps was scraping Craigslist for data, which startups like Padmapper would then use to create maps of listings." There, the user data was quite a degree of magnitude less sensitive than the kinds of ads for sexual services that get posted on a site like Backpage. "It's certainly difficult to see why Craigslist's users would want Craigslist to go out of their way to shut down Padmapper," Jeong added. "But on the other hand, when it comes to Rescue Forensics, I imagine that a lot of the people advertising on Backpage don't want someone scraping Backpage and giving that information to law enforcement."
Rescue Forensics may believe they have the right to copy ads to build their own product, but they may also expose advertisers by repurposing their information in ways they never meant for it to be used. "You can see a similar privacy issue at play with the FetLife 'meat list,'" Jeong said, "where someone scraped FetLife to create a list of profile names, ages, locations, sexual orientations, and BDSM roles of women on FetLife under 30."
Scraping websites primarily used by sex workers can have even more serious consequences for the people who advertise there. "The ability to advertise online provides a level of safety for many," D'Adamo told me, "but does come with the very real fear of exposure and leaving behind a footprint." Despite Rescue Forensics claim to focus on those who are "exploited," their product runs on sex workers' ads. "Compiling all of this information and making it easily searchable will only exacerbate these fears," D'Adamo added.
I asked Dalton to tell me more about these tools. How does Rescue Forensics sift through that data to find people who have been trafficked? He declined to share specifics. When I asked him to let me use a dummy version of Rescue Forensics without any real data in it, he said the reason he wouldn't was he "didn't want criminals to reverse-engineer what we've built to find them."
Here it might be reasonable to ask, if Rescue Forensics has built tools that allow law enforcement to look through classified ads placed for sexual services and discern who among those ads might be "exploited," why are they not stripping out all the ads that don't match that criteria and keeping only those that "contain suspicious behavior" in their database?
That's probably because Dalton himself acknowledges what they've built isn't enough to identify someone who has been trafficked into sex work, and that there's no way to tell from an ad if someone is forced or coerced. "Our platform can't distinguish," Dalton explained. "It's ultimately up to a human investigator."
That's a different story from the one Rescue Forensics has been telling on social media, where some sex workers and their allies have asked questions about the product, which they are concerned is meant to target them. In response to a question about this, Rescue Forensics tweeted back, "We design our platform only to look for exploited persons."
Why were other people at Rescue Forensics misrepresenting the product, I asked Dalton, and to the people who very well could have their data caught up in it? "I probably haven't done a good job of being clear," he offered.
The best explanation I can offer for this gap in the truth isn't about tech PR, or technology itself. If the so-called abolitionist movement is where Dalton's coming from—a movement that believes demand for the sex trade is responsible for trafficking, and therefore seeks to abolish the sex trade—you start to get a sense of why he might not be "clear."
Though he insisted to me multiple times that he does believe there's a difference between sex work and trafficking, Dalton still stands to profit from a product that can't make that distinction, placed in the hands of law enforcement officers who also routinely fail to make it. Police use every weapon at their disposal to harass and arrest sex workers, and Rescue Forensics can't guarantee it won't end up being one more.
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