Sex Workers Are at the Forefront of the Fight Against Mass Surveillance and Big Tech

The normalization of facial recognition technology and mass surveillance being used to target marginalized communities, whether in the hopes of "saving them" or not, is dangerous.

The normalization of facial recognition technology and mass surveillance being used to target marginalized communities, whether in the hopes of “saving them” or not, is dangerous. David McNew/Getty Images

Last week, sex workers, researchers, journalists, law students and allies met in a lecture room of Austin Hall at Harvard University for Hacking//Hustling @ Harvard.

They gathered to learn from one another about the ways in which their own sex working communities have been organizing and protecting themselves from the threat of mass surveillance and online censoring in the wake of SESTA-FOSTA, a law that amends “the Communications Act of 1934 to clarify that section 230 of such act does not prohibit the enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services of federal and state criminal and civil law relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking, and for other purposes.” Section 230 of the Communications Act traditionally acts as a safe-guard for free speech online, but SESTA-FOSTA’s limitations on Section 230 led to a panic about what websites could allow their users to post. The collective that is Hacking//Hustling focuses on “the intersection of technology and social justice issues that formed in response to the threat imposed on the sex working community after the passing of SESTA-FOSTA in April of 2018.”

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The impact of SESTA-FOSTA has been sweeping and unforgiving toward the sex working community, both in the United States, as well as globally. The law itself, along with the reactions of the general public, internet platforms and the sex working community, has had a profound impact. It has influenced not only the sex working community but arguably the entire American political landscape in 2019, as it is often the gateway topic to conversations around decriminalization of sex work as a whole. Hacking//Hustling @ Harvard was a successful day of knowledge sharing, community care and, in some ways, emphasized what we all already knew—that SESTA-FOSTA has harmed sex working communities while only contributing to a greater normalization of mass surveillance and censorship in the overall American political landscape. 

SESTA-FOSTA and Sex Work Mobilization 

Sex workers have been surveilled long before the use of facial recognition technology, before algorithms and before data collecting. Sex workers come from every corner of society because people of all identities have traded sex to survive. However, sex workers of color, queer sex workers, sex workers who use drugs and those who work outdoors are at higher risk of surveillance and violence from the criminal justice system. SESTA-FOSTA has contributed to a long history of sex working communities being othered from the greater society, targeted for surveillance and being carelessly put at risk for violence, this time in the name of “anti-trafficking” efforts. 

According to Lura Chamberlain in her Fordham Law Review paper FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost,” “Within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, 13 sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide.” Within a single month, FOSTA-SESTA’s passing had a tangible impact on the sex working community, yet according to sex worker, writer, and activist Lorelei Lee, “there’s been no criminal prosecutions using the law in the 18 months since it passed.” And not only that, during the Backpage trial (whose take down has falsely been attributed to FOSTA-SESTA, when actually the law that took down Backpage was the Travel Act), according to Lee, the Department of Justice actually stated that FOSTA had a higher federal intent requirement than the anti-trafficking laws which were already in place. Lee shared this on a panel covering a legal explainer of SESTA-FOSTA, since, of course, laws that target marginalized communities typically are written in academic and legal jargon that often make it completely inaccessible to the communities they impact. 

It should be very clear that sex workers have been organizing their communities long before the internet and SESTA-FOSTA. The 1975 eight-day strike by French sex workers, during which they occupied a total of five churches throughout France, demanding an end to police harassment, the re-opening of hotels they frequently worked and the scrapping of anti-pimping laws, is a well known early action of sex worker resistance. June 2, the day that the sex workers in Lyon began the strike by occupying Saint-Nizier Church, is now commemorated globally as International Whores’ Day. Sex workers have been organizing globally in response to threats brought on by criminalization, societal stigma and violence (all of these are linked) long before SESTA-FOSTA. 

In June 1975, a hundred women sex workers occupied the church of Saint-Nizier in Lyon, France to protest against police repression, to challenge the public opinion and to assert the right to dignity.

In June 1975, a hundred women sex workers occupied the church of Saint-Nizier in Lyon, France to protest against police repression, to challenge the public opinion and to assert the right to dignity. Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

That being said, SESTA-FOSTA has sparked an increase in political involvement in sex working communities within the United States. Workers who may have previously chosen to remain apolitical have reacted to the threat of SESTA-FOSTA. Emily, a grassroots organizer and researcher based in Las Vegas, shared on the panel “Mobilization via Threat: Sex Worker Resistance in a Post-SESTA/FOSTA Era” that threat, as a mobilizing force, “should be central to analysis of sex worker movement activity and their ongoing organizing and resistance efforts.” Emily later quoted the dominatrix and sex workers rights activist Danielle Blunt’s research shared earlier that day that there was a 50.5% increase in movement involvement after SESTA-FOSTA.

Emily’s research contends that this is due to the threat of the impact of SESTA-FOSTA that sex workers have mobilized at such a high rate, with the national conversation growing through the virality of hashtags such as #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSesta. Emily did bring up that these hashtags, obviously, can be shadowbanned and often hashtags, such as “#blacksexworkersmatter or the slew of tags representing campaigns of different incarcerated sex workers, still struggle to stay in the spotlight.”

It’s also important to note that, even though SESTA-FOSTA has had a devastating impact (and continues to do so), workers who don’t use the internet to do business and work outdoors are not helped by SESTA-FOSTA either—because they are still criminalized all the same yet aren’t always a part of the conversations of more privileged sex workers regarding the struggle against SESTA-FOSTA because, usually, their concerns are very different. This doesn’t mean that they’re not also surveilled; if anything, street-based sex workers are at higher risk of direct surveillance by the criminal justice system, as they often exist in communities that are already under heavy police surveillance. 

SESTA-FOSTA has contributed to a long history of sex working communities being othered from the greater society, targeted for surveillance and being carelessly put at risk for violence, this time in the name of "anti-trafficking" efforts.

SESTA-FOSTA has contributed to a long history of sex working communities being othered from the greater society, targeted for surveillance and being carelessly put at risk for violence, this time in the name of “anti-trafficking” efforts. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Mass Surveillance and Big Tech

After  SESTA-FOSTA, many ad-hosting websites have shut down (Backpage, for example); Tumblr has become a hotbed for white supremacy after the porn sweep; and social networking sites have updated their terms of service and community guidelines under the guise of avoiding charges under SESTA-FOSTA. To repeat what Lorelei Lee shared last Thursday, there hasn’t been a single legal case that has used SESTA-FOSTA since it passed. Bardot Smith, an analyst and researcher, shared during a talk on algorithmic warfare that “not only are we (sex workers) responsible for developing the internet, a lot of times the platforms themselves will use us to develop their platform to sustainability and profitability, and then we’ll be erased out of the terms of service on that platform.”

Smith went on to share her own experiences of being kicked off of payment processors, having issues building websites and on social media in general. “Algorithms are affecting people, and disproportionately they’re going to affect people at the margins,” she explained. “So queer people, people of color, sex working people. Obviously, the intersections of all these identities, and basically it comes down to people that they have determined don’t deserve access to money and resources.”

As sex workers are being pushed off the internet under the guise of SESTA-FOSTA, it should be remembered that there has been no criminal proceedings using the law since it has passed. Lorelei Lee put forth that “the fact that the platforms are reacting so strongly is not tethered to the actual text of the law.” Which beg the question of why SESTA-FOSTA has had such a big impact on the lives of sex workers and the state of the internet as a whole. The answer lies in Silicon Valley

Most people are familiar with Palantir, the company that developed mass-surveillance technology for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how those same technologies are now being utilized by the likes of the LAPD, for example. Palantir provided the technology that allows for racist gang databases by law enforcement which were later used by ICE to locate people without documents. The technology used to fight a failed War on Terror in a post-9/11 Patriot Act-fueled political landscape has been used to target communities of color, working class communities and sex-working communities.

One of Palantir’s partners is the non-profit Thorn, founded by Ashton Kutcher in 2012 with CEO Julie Cordua at the helm. Thorn’s supposed aim is to end child sex trafficking through its two programs Safer and Spotlight. Safer is based around content moderation, but Spotlight is a program that is used by law enforcement. During a panel, “Rescue Industry Woes: Policy & Advocacy Addressing Savorism,” the interim director and co-founder of Red Canary Song, Kate Zen, called out Thorn and Spotlight.

She explained that Spotlight “takes escort ads from various different advertising sites and makes it available so that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Imgur… Tinder and OK Cupid all have access to your escort ads. They have access to your faces and your photos if you’ve done any ads.” With facial recognition technology, your face is all non-profits, like Thorn and law enforcement who they partner with, need to identify you across multiple social networking websites. Zen went on to say that Thorn has an extremely close relationship with Facebook, even hosting hackathons for Save the Children together. If you go to Thorn’s website there is little on how its Spotlight program actually operates, except references to there being “150,000 escort ads posted every day” and that “somewhere in those ads there are children.” The website references how the organization uses disparate data sources, which they leave unspecified, of course, to streamline the process of finding “victims” of child sex trafficking. 

Sex workers have been at the forefront on the fight against mass surveillance before the internet even existed, as their communities have traditionally always been surveilled.

Sex workers have been at the forefront on the fight against mass surveillance before the internet even existed, as their communities have traditionally always been surveilled. David McNew/Getty Images

In May, Violet Blue at Engadget reported on Thorn’s Spotlight programstating that “at present and according to publicly available information, Spotlight scrapes websites and forums; its handout says ‘Spotlight is built on a data archive of millions of records of escort ads and forum data collected from various websites.’ Then, ‘Spotlight takes this massive amount of data and turns it into an asset for law enforcement.'”

Thorn later confirmed its use of online ads posted by sex workers in a June Quartz article, which happily boasted that Thorn uses tools such as Amazon’s Rekognition products to identify sex trafficking victims, specifically using Rekognition’s face recognition software, Indexfaces. Indexfaces “detects and matches faces to images of missing and exploited children from open web data sources,” which includes the escort ads that they warn so much about on their website. It would be optimistic to believe that Thorn’s Spotlight program isn’t directly being used in the continued pushing out of sex workers in online spaces, especially as there has been an increase in sex workers being pushed off social media platforms, specifically Instagram and Twitter. It should be noted that in addition to Palantir, Thorn partners with Amazon, Google, IAC, Digital Reasoning, Microsoft, MemSQL, Elastic and Domino, at least according to their website.  

When reached for comment, Thorn side-stepped the question of how it uses escort ads within its data collection. “Thorn’s tool, Spotlight, is an essential tool that accelerates the speed at which child sex trafficking victims can be identified. Facial recognition is one of many technologies that are leveraged in aggregate to help identify child victims,” CEO Julie Cordua said in a statement to Observer. “To date, Spotlight has assisted in identifying more than 10,000 child sex trafficking victims. Until the time when children are not bought and sold online, we will continue to deploy the most cutting-edge technology available to identify and recover those victims.”

Having directly asked for comment about how Thorn’s Spotlight program could be used to harm consenting adults who trade sex, Thorn’s avoidance of discussing how they use escort ads in their data collection, while also not denying it, speaks volumes. It diminishes the very valid concerns of the sex working community on how their own faces are being used. When even posting an ad online in order to make money to survive can lead to your face possibly being catalogued and handed into law enforcement, that’s terrifying.

The normalization of facial recognition technology and mass surveillance being used to target marginalized communities, whether in the hopes of “saving them” or not, is dangerous. Kate Zen later spoke on that same panel about the Robert Kraft case and how “it was putting video cameras inside of these salons allegedly for human trafficking. And of course, it resulted, again, like many of these cases, in zero convictions of trafficking, and instead you have workers losing their life savings to, you know, the cops that supposedly managed to save them, at the end of the day, are harming people.”

These technologies do inflict real harm on everyday people, but mass surveillance in the name of anti-trafficking efforts can actually often do more harm than good. Companies such as Palantir, Thorn, Google (which donated $11.5 million to anti-trafficking organizations) and their social networking counterparts, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, seem to have combined their forces to slowly shadowban or use terms of service to kick all sex workers off the internet, simply for existing online in digital spaces. 

Despite, SESTA-FOSTA Sex Workers Continue to Organize

Sex workers have been at the forefront on the fight against mass surveillance before the internet even existed, as their communities have traditionally always been surveilled. Hacking//Hustling, if anything, only proved that even in a world after FOSTA-SESTA, and even after the algorithm finds us, sex workers are organizing and surviving.

In their panel on mobilization, Emily shared with the audience that “it’s important to point out that, despite increasing surveillance and criminalization and attacks on our communities, the global sex worker rights movement is continuing to grow.” Even in the face of mass surveillance and censorship, sex workers continue to find ways to protect one another, watch out for one another and take care of each other just as we always have. 

Sex Workers Are at the Forefront of the Fight Against Mass Surveillance and Big Tech