The Online Christian Counterinsurgency Against Sex Workers

The Online Christian Counterinsurgency Against Sex Workers

The most popular video on Vaught Victor Marx’s YouTube now has more than 15 million views. Standing solemnly in a dark blue karate gi while his son Shiloh Vaughn Marx smiles and points a gun at his face, Marx uses his expertise as a seventh-degree black belt in “Cajun Karate Keichu-Do” to perform what he claims was the world’s fastest gun disarm. Over a period of just 80 milliseconds — according to Marx’s measurement — he snatches the gun from his son and effortlessly ejects the magazine. It’s a striking display, one that unequivocally shouts: I am here to stop bad guys.

Marx is more than just a competitive gun-disarmer and martial artist. He is also a former Marine, a self-proclaimed exorcist, and an author and filmmaker. He also helped launch the Skull Games, a privatized intelligence outfit that purports to hunt pedophiles, sex traffickers, and other “demonic activity” using a blend of sock-puppet social media accounts and commercial surveillance tools — including face recognition software.

The Skull Games events have attracted notable corporate allies. Recent games have been “powered” by the internet surveillance firm Cobwebs, and an upcoming competition is partnered with cellphone-tracking data broker Anomaly Six.

The moral simplicity of Skull Games’s mission is emblazoned across its website in fierce, all-caps type: “We hunt predators.” And Marx has savvily ridden recent popular attention to the independent film “Sound of Freedom,” a dramatization of the life of fellow anti-trafficking crusader Tim Ballard. In the era of QAnon and conservative “groomer” panic, vowing to take down shadowy — and frequently exaggerated — networks of “traffickers” under the aegis of Christ is an exercise in shrewd branding.

Although its name is a reference to the mind games played by pimps and traffickers, Skull Games, which Marx’s church is no longer officially involved in, is itself a form of sport for its participants: a sort of hackathon for would-be Christian saviors, complete with competition. Those who play are awarded points based on their sleuthing. Finding a target’s high school diploma or sonogram imagery nets 15 points, while finding the same tattoo on multiple women would earn a whopping 300. On at least one occasion, according to materials reviewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, participants competed for a chance at prizes, including paid work for Marx’s California church and one of its surveillance firm partners.

While commercially purchased surveillance exists largely outside the purview of the law, Skull Games was founded to answer to a higher power. The event started under the auspices of All Things Possible Ministries, the Murrieta, California, evangelical church Marx founded in 2003.

Marx has attributed his conversion to Christianity to becoming reunited with his biological father — according to Marx, formerly a “practicing warlock” — toward the end of his three years in the Marine Corps. Marx’s tendency to blame demons and warlocks would become the central cause of controversy of his own ministry, largely as a result of his focus on exorcisms as the solutions to issues ranging from pornography to veteran suicides. As Marx recently told “The Spillover” podcast, “I hunt pedophiles, but I also hunt demons.”

Skull Games also ends up being a hunt for sex workers, conflating them with trafficking victims as they prepare intelligence dossiers on women before turning them over to police.

Groups seeking to rescue sex workers — whether through religion, prosecution, or both — are nothing new, said Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the advocacy group Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento. What Skull Games represents — the technological outsourcing of police work to civilian volunteers — presents a new risk to sex workers, she argued.

“I think it’s dangerous because you set up people to have that vigilante mentality.”

“I think it’s dangerous because you set up people to have that vigilante mentality — that idea that, we’re going to go out and we’re going to catch somebody — and they probably really believe that they are going to ‘save someone,’” DiAngelo told The Intercept and Tech Inquiry. “And that’s that savior complex. We don’t need saving; we need support and resources.”

The eighth Skull Games, which took place over the weekend of July 21, operated out of a private investigation firm headquartered in a former church in Wanaque, New Jersey. A photo of the event shared by the director of intelligence of Skull Games showed 57 attendees — almost all wearing matching black T-shirts — standing in front of corporate due diligence firm Hetherington Group’s office with a Skull Games banner unfurled across its front doors. Hetherington Group’s address is simple to locate online, but their office signage doesn’t mention the firm’s name, only saying “593 Ringwood LLC” above the words “In God We Trust.” (Cynthia Hetherington, the CEO of Hetherington Group and a board member of Skull Games, distanced her firm from the surveillance programs normally used at the events. “Cobwebs brought the bagels, which I’m still trying to digest,” she said. “I didn’t see their software anywhere in the event.”)

The attempt to merge computerized counterinsurgency techniques with right-wing evangelism has left some Skull Games participants uncomfortable. One experienced attendee of the January 2023 Skull Games was taken aback by an abundance of prayer circles and paucity of formal training. “Within the first 10 minutes,” the participant recalled of a training webinar, “I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”

Jeff Tiegs blesses U.S. Army Soldiers and explains to them the religious origins of a popular hand gesture on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on April 20, 2022.

Photo: Alamy

Delta Force OSINT

The numbers of nongovernmental surveillance practitioners has risen in tandem with the post-9/11 boom in commercial tools for social media surveillance, analyzing private chat rooms, and tracking cellphone pings.

Drawing on this abundance of civilian expertise, Skull Games brings together current and former military and law enforcement personnel, along with former sex workers and even employees of surveillance firms themselves. Both Skull Games and the high-profile, MAGA-beloved Operation Underground Railroad have worked with Cobwebs, but Skull Games roots its branding in counterinsurgency and special operations rather than homeland security.

“I fought the worst of the worst: ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban,” Skull Games president and former Delta Force soldier Jeff Tiegs has said. “But the adversary I despise the most are human traffickers.” Tiegs has told interviewers that he takes “counterterrorism / counterinsurgency principles” and applies them to these targets.

“I fought the worst of the worst: ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban. But the adversary I despise the most are human traffickers.”

The plan broadly mimicked a widely praised Pentagon effort to catch traffickers that was ultimately shut down this May due to a lack of funding. In a training session earlier this month, Tiegs noted that active-duty military service members take part in the hunts; veterans like Tiegs himself are everywhere. The attendee list for a recent training event shows participants with day jobs at the Department of Defense, Portland Police Bureau, and Air Force, as well as a lead contracting officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Skull Games employs U.S. Special Forces jargon, which dominates the pamphlets handed out to volunteers. Each volunteer is assigned the initial informal rank of private and works out of a “Special Operations Coordination Center.” Government acronyms abound: Participants are asked to keep in mind CCIRs — Commander’s Critical Information Requirements — while preventing EEFIs — Essential Elements of Friendly Information— from falling into the hands of the enemy.

Tiegs’s transition from counterinsurgency to counter-human-trafficking empresario came after he met Jeff Keith, the founder of the anti-trafficking nonprofit Guardian Group, where Tiegs was an executive for nearly five years. While Tiegs was developing Guardian Group’s tradecraft for identifying victims, he was also beginning to work more closely with Marx, whom he met on a trip to Iraq in 2017. By the end of 2018, Marx and Tiegs had joined each others’ boards.

Beyond the Special Forces acumen of its leadership, what sets Skull Games apart from other amateur predator-hunting efforts is its reliance on “open-source intelligence.” OSINT, as it’s known, is a military euphemism popular among its practitioners that refers to a broad amalgam of intelligence-gathering techniques, most relying on surveilling the public internet and purchasing sensitive information from commercial data brokers.

Sensitive personal information is today bought and sold so widely, including by law enforcement and spy agencies, that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently warned that data “that could be used to cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety” is available on “nearly everyone.”

Skull Games’s efforts to tap this unregulated sprawl of digital personal data function as sort of vice squad auxiliaries. Participants scour the U.S. for digital evidence of sex work before handing their findings over to police — officers the participants often describe as friends and collaborators.

After publicly promoting 2020 as the year Guardian Group would “scale” its tradecraft up to tackling many more cases, Tiegs abruptly jumped from his role as chief operating officer of the organization into the same title at All Things Possible — Marx’s church. By December 2021, Tiegs had launched the first Skull Games under the umbrella of All Things Possible. The event was put together in close partnership with Echo Analytics, which had been acquired earlier that year by Quiet Professionals, a surveillance contractor led by a former Delta Force sergeant major. The first Skull Games took place in the Tampa offices of Echo Analytics, just 13 miles from the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command.

As of May 2023, Tiegs has separated from All Things Possible and leads the Skull Games as a newly independent, tax-exempt nonprofit. “Skull Games is separate and distinct from ATP,” he said in an emailed statement. “There is no role for ATP or Marx in Skull Games.”

The Hunt

Reached by phone, Tiegs downplayed the role of powerful surveillance tools in Skull Games’s work while also conceding he wasn’t always aware of what technologies were being used in the hunt for predators — or how.

Despite its public emphasis on taking down traffickers, much of Skull Games’s efforts boil down to scrolling through sex worker ad listings and attempting to identify the women. Central to the sleuthing, according to Tiegs and training materials reviewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, is the search for visual indicators in escort ads and social media posts that would point to a woman being trafficked. An October 2022 report funded by the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, however, concluded that the appearance of many such indicators — mostly emojis and acronyms — was statistically insignificant.

Tiegs spoke candidly about the centrality of face recognition to Skull Games. “So here’s a girl, she’s being exploited, we don’t know who she is,” he said. “All we have is a picture and a fake name, but, using some of these tools, you’re able to identify her mugshot. Now you know everything about her, and you’re able to start really putting a case together.”

According to notes viewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, the competition recommended that volunteers use and PimEyes, programs that allow users to conduct reverse image searches for an uploaded picture of face. In a July Skull Games webinar, one participant noted that they had been able to use PimEyes to find a sex worker’s driver’s license posted to the web.

In January, Cobwebs Technologies, an Israeli firm, announced it would provide Skull Games with access to its Tangles surveillance platform. According to Tiegs, the company is “one of our biggest supporters.” Previous reporting from Motherboard detailed the IRS Criminal Investigation unit’s usage of Cobwebs for undercover investigations.

Skull Games training materials provided to The Intercept and Tech Inquiry provide detailed instructions on the creation of “sock puppet” social media accounts: fake identities for covert research and other uses. Tiegs denied recommending the creation of such pseudonymous accounts, but on the eve of the eighth Skull Games, team leader Joe Labrozzi told fellow volunteers, “We absolutely recommend sock puppets,” according to a training seminar transcript reviewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry. Other volunteers shared tips on creating fake social media accounts, including the use of ChatGPT and machine learning-based face-generation tools to build convincing social media personas.

Tiegs also denied a participant’s assertion that Clearview AI’s face recognition software was heavily used in the January 2023 Skull Games. Training materials obtained by Tech Inquiry and The Intercept, however, suggest otherwise. At one point in a July training webinar, a Virginia law enforcement volunteer who didn’t give their name asked what rules were in place for using their official access to face recognition and other law enforcement databases. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” replied another participant, adding that some police Skull Games volunteers had permission to tap their departmental access to Clearview AI and Spotlight, an investigative tool that uses Amazon’s Rekognition technology to identify faces.

Cobwebs — which became part of the American wiretapping company PenLink earlier this month — provides a broad array of surveillance capabilities, according to a government procurement document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Cobwebs provides investigators with the ability to continuously monitor the web for certain keyphrases. The Tangles platform can also provide face recognition; fuse OSINT with personal account data collected from search warrants; and pinpoint individuals through the locations of their phones — granting the ability to track a person’s movements going back as many as three years without judicial oversight.

When reached for comment, Cobwebs said, “Only through collaboration between all sectors of society — government, law enforcement, academia — and the proper tools, can we combat human trafficking.” The company did not respond to detailed questions about how its platform is used by Skull Games.

According to a source who previously attended a Skull Games event, and who asked for anonymity because of their ongoing role in counter-trafficking, only one member of the “task force” of participants had access to the Tangles platform: a representative from Cobwebs itself who could run queries from other task force analysts when requested. The rest of the group was equipped with whatever OSINT-gathering tools they already had access to outside of Skull Games, creating a lopsided exercise in which some participants were equipped with little more than their keyboards and Google searches, while others tapped tools like Clearview or Thomson Reuters CLEAR, an analytics tool used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Tiegs acknowledged that most Skull Games participants likely have some professional OSINT expertise. By his account, they operate on a sort of BYO-intelligence-gathering-tool basis and, owing to Skull Games’s ad hoc use of technology, said he couldn’t confirm how exactly Cobwebs may have been used in the past. Despite Skull Games widely advertising its partnership with another source of cellphone location-tracking data — the commercial surveillance company Anomaly Six — Tiegs said, “We’re not pinpointing the location of somebody.” He claimed Skull Games uses less sophisticated techniques to generate leads for police who may later obtain a court order for, say, geolocational data. (Anomaly Six said that it is not providing its software or data to Skull Games.)

Tiegs also expressed frustration with the notion that deploying surveillance tools to crack down on sex work would be seen as impermissible. “We allow Big Data to monitor everything you’re doing to sell you iPods or sunglasses or new socks,” he said, “but if you need to leverage some of the same technology to protect women and children, all of the sudden everybody’s up in arms.”

Tiegs added, “I’m really conflicted how people rationalize that.”

People march in support of sex workers, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. People marched in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, among other issues. (AP Photo/John Locher)

People march in support of sex workers and decriminalizing sex work on June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Photo: John Locher/AP

“Pure Evil”

A potent strain of anti-sex work sentiment — not just opposition to trafficking — has pervaded Skull Games since its founding. Although the events are no longer affiliated with a church, Tiegs and his lieutenants’ devout Christianity suggests the digital hunt for pedophiles and pimps remains a form of spiritual warfare.

Michele Block, a Canadian military intelligence veteran who has worked as Skull Games’s director of intelligence since its founding at All Things Possible, is open about her belief that their surveillance efforts are part of a battle against Satan. In a December 2022 interview at America Fest, a four-day conference organized by the right-wing group Turning Point USA, Block described her work as a fight against “pure evil,” claiming that many traffickers are specifically targeting Christian households.

Tiegs argued that “100 percent” of sex work is human trafficking and that “to legalize the purchasing of women is a huge mistake.”

The combination of digital surveillance and Christian moralizing could have serious consequences not only for “predators,” but also their prey: The America Fest interview showed that Skull Games hopes to take down alleged traffickers by first going after the allegedly trafficked.

“So basically, 24/7, our intelligence department identifies victims of sex trafficking.”

“So basically, 24/7,” Block explained, “our intelligence department identifies victims of sex trafficking.” All of this information — both the alleged trafficker and alleged victim — is then handed over to police. Although Tiegs says Skull Games has provided police with “a couple hundred” such OSINT leads since its founding, he conceded the group has no information about how many have resulted in prosecutions or indictments of actual traffickers.

When asked about Skull Games’s position on arresting victims, Tiegs emphasized that “arresting is different from prosecuting” and argued, “Sometimes they do need to make the arrest, because of the health and welfare of that person. She needs to get clean, maybe she’s high. … Very rarely, in my opinion, is it right to charge and prosecute a girl.”

Sex worker advocates, however, say any punitive approach is not only ungrounded in the reality of the trade, but also hurts the very people it purports to help. Although exploitation and coercion are dire realities for many sex workers, most women choose to go into sex work either out of personal preference or financial necessity, according to DiAngelo, of Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento. (The Chicago branch of SWOP was a plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union’s successful 2020 lawsuit against Clearview AI in Illinois.)

Referring to research she had conducted with the University of California, Davis, DiAngelo explained that socioeconomic desperation is the most common cause of trafficking, a factor only worsened by a brush with the law. “The majority of the people we interview, even if we removed the person who was exploiting them from their life, they still wanted to be in the sex trade,” DiAngelo explained.

Both DiAngelo and Savannah Sly of the nonprofit New Moon Network, an advocacy group for sex workers, pointed to flaws in the techniques that police claim detect trafficking from coded language in escort ads. “You can’t tell just by looking at a picture whether someone’s trafficked or not,” Sly said. The “dragnet” surveillance of sex workers performed by groups like Skull Games, she claimed, imperils their human rights. “If I become aware I’m being surveilled, that’s not helping my situation,” Sly said, “Sex workers live with a high degree of paranoia.”

Rather than “rescuing” women from trafficking, DiAngelo argued Skull Games’s collaboration with police risks driving women into the company of people seeking to take advantage of them — particularly if they’ve been arrested and face diminished job prospects outside of sex work. DiAngelo said, “They’re going to lock them into sex work, because once you get the scarlet letter, nobody wants you anymore.”

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