2013-11-14

Co.Labs

Why Are We Building Jailbait Sexbots?

Realistic animated 10-year-old girls are being used to catch sexual predators in the act, and creating moral, legal, and human rights quandaries in the process.



A phenomena known as Webcam Child Sex Tourism—adults logging into sex-chat rooms with minors in developing countries—is on the rise. It is estimated that tens of thousands of adults currently prey on children this way each day, and the number keeps growing according to international researchers.

Last week a team of coders, animators, and researchers announced they had created a solution: a computer-generated 10-year-old girl named Sweetie, intended to catch predators in the act. In just 10 weeks this bit of CGI wizardry and software caught 1,000 predators. But it also raised a lot of questions, like: can you commit a sexual crime against a piece of code?

Why Webcam Child Sex Tourism Is Getting Worse

“It was simply overwhelming, we were inundated, swamped by an avalanche of men,” says Hans Guyt, whose organization first deployed Sweetie.

For 10 weeks earlier this year, Guyt and his team at Terre des Hommes Netherlands, an organization that fights child exploitation, worked out of a secret location in a warehouse in Amsterdam. The secrecy is necessary to avoid backlash from culprits.

WCST usually works like this: A customer logs into an Internet chat room and purposely seek out a child to engage with. Some may just chance their luck by trying to find unsuspecting children on Facebook or other non-purpose-built chat rooms. However, the FBI has identified thousands of Internet chat rooms dedicated solely to Webcam Child Sex Tourism. This means that the children in these chat rooms aren’t just there for curiosity’s sake, or just hanging out virtually with friends and are then unfortunate enough to be lured into a random predator’s cyber arms.

“These children are either young prostitutes working from Internet cafes or children who, forced by their parents or other family members, perform sex shows in front of a webcam from their homes,” Guyt says. “They surf public chat rooms to establish contact with men.”

Once the children make contact, the men on the other end of the Internet connection then pay via PayPal or Western Union Online to watch live streaming video of the children acting out their sexual desires.

The sexual exploitation of children is unfortunately nothing new. But with the rise of cheap, affordable technology like webcams, high-speed Internet access, and online payment methods, now a person can, ironically, safely exploit a child halfway around the world from the comfort of his own living room—which is why WCST has exploded in recent years.

Why Combatting WCST Is So Morally Confusing

But even as this behavior increases, a large portion of the adult customers engaged in it can’t be technically classified as pedophilic, a psychiatric designation that is characterized by a long-term primary sexual attraction to prepubertal children. Instead, many WCST customers seem to be people who engage in it simply because the opportunity arises and they get curious.

In other words, if Skype, PayPal, and the Internet did not exist, these people might not be seeking to exploit children in the physical world.

There is no doubt that the 1,000 individuals on the dossiers Guyt and his team identified were engaging in sexual acts (usually including sexual conversations and masturbation via webcam) with Sweetie. However, judging the criminality of such actions gets confusing because Sweetie is not a 10-year-old girl—no matter what she looks like. She’s not even a “she.” Sweetie is an “it.” And it’s code.

So I’m left wondering what crime have these men (and women, as Sweetie did have female solicitors) actually committed? Couldn’t it be argued that these people haven’t broken any laws? Guyt admits that is a valid argument. But, he says, “That wasn’t our point anyway. These men had and have the intention to commit crimes against young children and should be stopped before they do. The novel approach that we promote does exactly that.”

How Sweetie Was Born Of Code And Conscience

To prototype Sweetie, Guyt and his team first set up a pair of two-member research teams. One member on each team would create a fake profile and imitate a 10-year-old girl named “Sweetie” in chat rooms, while the other team member collected information the customer was revealing through IM messages, which they then used to piece together the real identity of the predator.

But they quickly discovered a (perhaps appropriate) level of paranoia in their marks, who frequently requested visual confirmation that they were indeed talking to a real underage girl and were not part of a sting operation.

That lead Guyt’s researchers to get to work on creating an advanced CGI model of Sweetie. The result was a ultra-realistic 3-D model of a 10-year-old Filipino girl that would fool even the most accomplished Hollywood blockbuster animator. The development of Sweetie itself took six months and, though Guyt wouldn't divulge the software or the coding language used to make Sweetie, it’s likely that it was rendered in Maya.

The researchers then programed a separate application to control the 3-D Sweetie on command. For the first time ever, while the researchers were having an active IM conversation with the predators, the predators were seeing real-time video of a software-fabricated child typing away at a keyboard.

It’s Alive!

The ploy worked. In just 10 weeks Guyt and his team positively identified 1,000 sexual predators before they shut Sweetie down for good and then handed Interpol the dossiers of the individuals they positively identified.

To be sure, Sweetie marks an historic advance in identifying predators. Never before has such a technique been used. Indeed, it could not have been, as previously, in order to make predators believe they were talking to a 10-year-old girl with the confirmation they wanted, they would need to see video footage of a real 10-year-old girl interacting with them live on screen, which would have broken a number of international laws and put the health and safety of the girl at risk.

Sweetie changed all this. But it also raised that question: Did any of these 1,000 predators actually commit a crime?

Can You Commit A Crime Against Code?

Sweetie was never meant to run forever. It was a proof of concept application to inspire global law enforcement agencies to realize how much more could be done to fight child exploitation using advanced technology. It also, of course, was a publicity stunt to bring more attention to the problem of WCST—and at that it was a resounding success.

But besides bringing WCST to light in the press, Sweetie raised other issues that weren’t widely reported on––primarily, can you commit a crime against code?

Guyt says that there are too many difficulties in trying to prosecute online predators engaging children in sexual acts for money, which is why a technological deterrent like Sweetie must exist.

“The victims won’t come forward. They are either young prostitutes trying to survive and make some money or they are children forced by their parents. They won’t come out either to testify against their own families. Secondly, there are no witnesses on the Internet. This is live streaming video and when the perpetrator switches off the computer, the evidence is gone. No victim, no witness, no evidence, no case. We should therefore intervene before a crime is committed. Though the Internet must be free it should not be lawless.”

Public chat rooms should be observed, monitored, and patrolled by law enforcement, says Guyt. Once potential predators are identified, police could take the next step by issuing a warning. “This will serve as a deterrent to hundreds of thousands of potential so-called ‘casual’ pedophiles. It will scare the living daylights out of most of them.”

I don’t disagree completely with Guyt. Child exploitation and human trafficking are a huge, very real and pressing problem in the Internet age. And he is right that a deterrent like Sweetie to warn predators they are being monitored can scare many so much—especially the more casual one—that they stop for good. To that end, Sweetie is an admirable attempt to use tech for good.

One Step Toward “Pre-Crime” Enforcement?

But taken further Sweetie veers into Orwellian or Minority Report “pre-crime” territory and I’m wondering if any of the predators identified can actually be convicted for exploiting children because, though she looks like a 10-year-old girl, Sweetie can’t suffer like one. She is non-sentient code: So, again, where is the crime?

This question is something governments, law enforcement agencies, technology leaders, philosophers, and members of society will have to increasingly debate as technology becomes more adept at identifying potential crime. For now, Sweetie is a good starting point, but its solution is not the only way to use technology to fight child exploitation, as some like Google and their partners have taken a very different approach.

Still, having spoken to trafficking victims in my research and seeing the horrible psychological effects exploitation has, it’s understandable that people explore questionable methods to try to stop it. New technology will inevitably always be used by some to inflict suffering on others, and trying to fight that use can seem like an uphill battle.

As Guyt tells me, “Ask anyone who works in the area of cyber crime prevention to describe their job and you’ll most likely be told that it’s like running to stand still. Just as we all enjoy discovering the benefits that each new wave of digital technology brings us, so to do others enjoy discovering what new criminal capabilities the latest development affords them. We just have to keep on running…”

If you’re interested in learning more about Sweetie and support the technology to catch potential predators engaging in Webcam Child Sex Tourism, you can sign the petition here to urge international justice ministers, police chiefs, and child protection chiefs to crack down on public chat rooms where WCST is rampant.

[Images courtesy of Terre des Hommes]






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9 Comments

  • Shane Cattell

    just a fought. if this is a first step in catching them. so has it not came to anyones mind that a cgi of a man should be made to help find these girls and help them?

  • TheEvilBlight

    If a pedophile obtains the binaries for sweetie this and amuses themself, does the pedophile go to jail?

  • Luciano Elias

    The main problem is that society is somehow wired to try to solve symptoms, not causes.

    - As trans said bellow, someone must be pimping. Why?

    - The "pedophiles" clearly don't have the same moral values that stop most people from committing these acts. Why?

    We can go and keep catching and locking up people until most of the world is behind bars. But why not try to fix what causes people to do wrong things to begin with?

    Maybe there's not enough money in that?

    Or was Alfred right, and some men just want to see the world burn?

  • WyattEpp

    Think it's confusing now? Just wait until neurohaptics and sensory modification advance. Is it a crime for someone to fool their brain into thinking they're having a physical rendezvous with a digital construct with the appearance of a young girl? And if it is, what are the judicial criteria?

    Bonus: if it's not illegal in all cases above, would flooding the WCST "market" with free virtual "girls" be effective to undercut the pimps and force them to give up on their cam operations? (Serious question; I have no idea what would happen there.)

  • Anneka Juilus

    Being a pedophile is not a crime.
    Having sex with children is a crime.

  • trans

    Does this add up for other people? Something seems off about it. Two things come to my mind:

    1. It is so obvious this is CGI. I don't see how anyone would fall for it.

    2. Where does a six year old poor girl get a computer with a webcam?

    Someone must be pimping, why don't they go after those people? Moreover if these children can just be replaced with CGI, why would any pimp want to bother with the cost of a child? In its own way, this solution for catching predators could be the solution to end exploitation.

    Quote: "hundreds of thousands of predators". At that rate, does it occur to anyone that in part this is fighting a biological drive? I'm not sure just labeling these people "evil" locking them up and marking them with the letter "P" for the rest of their lives is an actual solution.

  • Timothy David Cruise

    Ugh, okay, in order:

    Apparently it's not that obvious.

    Computers are not that expensive and the Phillipines is not some desert. They have computers.

    Pimps are not normally the case; usual pattern of offense is single groomers, sometimes groups, dealing with single children. "Cost" doesn't enter into it. As for ending exploitation, research is debatable but there's some evidence that that kind of "solution" actually makes things worse - exposure to communities increases offending, and exposure to artificial images depicting child sexual abuse may increase offending.

    Lastly, to my knowledge every state that currently criminalises the crime REQUIRES treatment, so your information is bad; that's simply not what happens. This is actually one of the primary obstacles to research; control groups are illegal in all countries with sufficient populations to do research with reasonable statistical power, since refusing treatment to a group breaches legal codes.