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Microsoft tech used to deter sex slavery in Seattle area

(File, Associated Press)

Volunteers from Microsoft recently used their high-tech skills toward fighting sex slavery in King County.

“We know that law enforcement has been doing stings for a while, where they impersonate a trafficking victim in an ad online,” Robert Beiser with Seattle Against Slavery told Seattle’s Morning News. “The challenge is you can only have so many law enforcement officers spending their time on that type of crime, but you have tens of thousands of people, even just here in the Seattle area, who are buying sex from trafficking victims.”

RELATED: The harsh reality of Seattle prostitution

So to help law enforcement keep up, Seattle Against Slavery teamed up with volunteers from Microsoft to create a chat bot. Bots are common online, especially in the customer service field. They are computer programs that respond to inquiries and messages from people online, often simulating a customer service representative. In this case, however, the bots were programmed to simulate someone selling sex. Once certain points of the conversation are encountered, a deterrence message is sent to the buyer.

“The deterrence message depends a bit on the persona of the bot … for example if the bot has revealed that they are 15-years-old and says, ‘Does that sound good for you even though I am younger?’ And the buyer says, ‘Yes, that sounds good. Let’s set up an appointment.’ Then the deterrence message focuses on if you are arrested for this you could be a registered sex offender, buying sex from a minor is a felony and could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and legal fees. And if you need help … we have resources we can provide to them.”

Resources such as a 10-week program offered through the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. About 100 people have opted into such programs through the bot and ads the organization runs. The bots are just deterring buyers so far. Beiser said police cannot arrest everyone who is online buying sex. He wants to get cities to use the technology to fight sex trafficking.

“There are two pieces that work in our favor,” Beiser said. “One is that we have incredible cutting edge volunteers who have worked on this. They are using Microsoft bot framework … that allow us to recognize a lot of things that most chat bots that you see probably are going to mess up on.”

“The second thing is something we actually discovered during the prototyping process itself,” he said. “The guys who are attempting to buy sex, seem to get a lot dumber during the process of buying sex from a trafficking victim. The little blips here and there, they just push right past them and don’t seem to notice … even to the point where we will send them a deterrence message, they will understand they are not talking to a real person, and then they’ll continue trying to make an appointment.”

Another piece of technology takes on sex trafficking from another angle; it seeks out victims. Beiser said about 412 people in King County have interacted with an advocate after encountering these bots, and 40 people have gotten out of a life of prostitution and trafficking through the technology.

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