Ashton Kutcher's Thorn: Exploring The Rise of Silicon Valley’s Vigilantism


Image: Thorn

On  July 30th, 2014,  41-year-old man in Houston, TX was arrested for housing child pornography in his Google Mail. As previously convicted sex offender, he now faces more repercussions for the images that were found in his digital devices. The authorities would surely have missed his offense if it had not been for Google’s software that detects child porn through a unique data fingerprint called Hashing. The police were allowed to enter this Texas man’s home only due to the fact that Google had given them probable cause to do so. 

At the time of his arrest, outside of Silicon Valley, the non-profit Thorn, led by Ashton Kutcher, was promoting a hackathon. Thorn’s tagline, the Digital Defenders of Children, gives us the sense that a certain degree of vigilantism or citizen policing has arisen out of Silicon Valley, where the organization’s cyber neighborhood watch makes up for what the U.S. government cannot or does not have the capability to do. 

Thorn is publicly seeking new ways to combat the sexual exploitation of children, and on August 5th it did just that. Over 80 engineers, activists, and data scientists assembled for two days to create ways to combat the sexual exploitation of children during the Thorn hackathon, where the motive was to create solutions and tools to help defeat the sexual exploitation of children online. The winning group created a program that can potentially trace the role of virtual currency in the use of child sexual exploitation online, thus exposing the sale of illegal photos, prostitution, and trafficking of children. 

As horrid as the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children is, it seems we still need to be mindful of the tools we wield in order to protect children and ourselves from predatory behavior. Google or Thorn may be creating more effective means to prosecute online predators, but they also may be crossing a fine line of privacy infringement. In addition, the rogue nature of Thorn begs multiple questions of citizen’s rights to privacy and how we as consumers use the Internet and services of goliaths like Google, as well as to what degree our data is their property. 

What digital tools out there are you seeing defend children? 

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