Ashton Kutcher launches tech lab to fight child sexual exploitation

ashton kutcher presenting

Child porn. Live-streaming child abuse. Sextortion.

These are some of the most common ways that kids are exploited every day online.

Ashton Kutcher learned about the disturbing trend years ago after watching a Dateline special about exploited children in Cambodia. After digging into the issue, he realized that this wasn't geographically isolated. It was happening "way closer to home that I could have ever imagined."

He cofounded a nonprofit with the intention of protecting at-risk children.

Today, some of the world's biggest tech companies are joining Kutcher and his organization Thorn in the fight.

On Thursday, the company announced the launch of a new Innovation Lab headquartered in Silicon Valley. The Lab will employ its own engineers and data scientists, who will experiment with new technologies to identify and deter criminal behavior directed at children online.

Companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB, Tech30), Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30), Pinterest and IAC (IACI) are helping to foot the bill and provide additional engineering support. The Lab will work to use "dark web" search technology to identify victims. It will also develop a service to better identify missing children from their photos.

Kutcher says the Lab is a necessary next step for the nonprofit, which is based on Los Angeles and has just eight employees. Until now, it has outsourced most of its tech needs.

"We realized we weren't moving fast enough," Kutcher told CNNMoney. "If we really want to get into the deeper side of this, we have to be as nimble as the people exploiting these children."

Child exploitation is widespread and takes a variety of forms. There have been over 20 million different IP addresses linked to pictures and videos of child pornography since 2009. Also prevalent are pimps who solicit children online -- they can make up to $1,000 per child a night.

"It's probably happening in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your schools," said Kutcher, who is a new father himself. "It's not something to be taken lightly."

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More than 100,000 kids in the U.S. alone are thought to be "at risk" of being trafficked online, according to Thorn CEO Julie Cordua.

That number comes from a 2001 study, which Cordua says is the best data available. It accounts for runaway children, those in foster care, and those without a strong familial support system.

Thorn has been uniting major tech companies on its mission for years. In 2010, it assembled a Technology Task Force with the help of venture capitalist Ron Conway. The Task Force is made up of more than 25 tech companies. Together, they have developed best practices and tech tools to aid law enforcement.

One of the most successful collaborations is the Spotlight Tool, which helps investigators find sex traffickers online. It rolled out nationwide in April 2015 and already, police in 45 states are using it. They've identified 300 victims, and Cordua said it has cut investigative time by 43%.

"Thorn is in a great position because we're an independent entity," said Cordua. "We are constantly looking for how can we improve industry collaboration. There isn't a private sector motivation to work on or innovate in the same way."

Kutcher, who is an investor in startups like Uber, Airbnb, and Zenefits, says he treats Thorn like his favorite startup.

"This is by far one of the hardest [problems to solve] and one [of the startups] I'm most proud of."

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