In George Orwell's novel 1984, we see a dystopian world that has fallen under a "big brother" type of government monitoring system.In fact with shows like Big Brother on TV, it is worth mentioning that this is where the term originates. Though Orwell published this book way back in 1949, it is having increasingly more and more relevance in our modern world. What this book, however, illustrates is one of the ultimate questions we as a global society are going to have to answer eventually: Is public safety more important than individual privacy? For Sex Workers (who the world over are more often than not highly criminalized) this could have even more detrimental and devastating effects to our abilities to make a living and provide for ourselves and our families. In many ways, we are already having to make a lot of these decisions around privacy and safety with the advent of online sex work platforms.
Firstly, let us talk about what facial recognition is and how it works. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation as reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, when a facial recognition image is captured first one's eyes are located and mapped out. Then, the rest of the facial shape is mapped out including distance between eyes, nose and chin. The final process is one by which the infographic is turned into a mathematical algorithm for one's face which is then used by the search engine to find duplicates. Facial recognition is already used in some countries and is used here in the U.S. to some extent in certain cities among law enforcement, ICE and at airports, border crossings and even at the DMV to detect fraud. It has even been used at the Olympics and will be used again in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Facebook this past week has even rolled out their own facial recognition software, which they say will be left off by default unless someone deliberately turns it on. For now. Facebook has also said that the purpose of the software is to be able to send alerts to users whenever their face turns up on Facebook, so a user could either tag themselves in a status or report a fraudulent account.
Sex workers are already facing big threats to livelihood without facial recognition software being commonplace. In April 2018 the U.S. feds seized Backpage and several days later FOSTA/SESTA (house and senate bill respectively) were passed rolling back the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996. This meant not only that third party internet content could be used to hold website owners responsible for any illegal activity on their platform, but it essentially conflated adult, consensual sex work with sex trafficking and removed any legal distinctions between the two, instead preferring to classify any form of sex industry labor as sex trafficking. The internet is rapidly becoming a less and less predictable means for sex workers to make income and survive and facial recognition software only compounds these vulnerabilities.
For Sex Workers, there are a huge host of issues that facial recognition poses. For one, if a sex worker got caught up in the legal system, then it would be very easy for law enforcement to find a digital trail of crimes committed online. Every sex worker with an online ad would now be easy to connect to the crime of alleged prostitution if and when building a case. Even worse, that cop who pulls you over for speeding or a broken tail light can simply go on an ipad or smartphone and run a current photo against a database of other photos of your face taken from your online presence, including social media and other online sites catering to adult companion advertising and others. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to then come to the conclusion that facial recognition could not just mean the end of online sex work as we know it, but also possibly even street-based/outdoor work as well, as outdoor sex workers have more frequent encounters with police who may run their photos against a database. Without the surface web, the options for sex workers to advertise online would have to move completely to the dark web where web pages are password encrypted multiple times and one must use a special onion router (like TOR) to even access dark web pages. The dark web isn’t just used for criminal activity (though a significant portion of it is for that), in fact many journalists such as Edward Snowden have had to use the dark web. The downside is that it does require a certain amount of tech-savvy and wouldn’t be the kind of thing most people looking for adult companionship online would probably find too user friendly. The other potential option for the transmutation of online sex work would be for ads to become strictly written word, without photos. A prospect that is undoubtedly hard to imagine becoming a successful alternative. Street based sex work might also cease to be an option if there are face recognition cameras on the streets.
The other, more theoretical issue this causes Sex Workers, is the propensity for these technologies to be used to quell free speech. In the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department ran the faces of the protestors against their social media presence and were able to thusly arrest said protestors by building an impromptu case against them. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation face recognition technologies are especially inaccurate at properly identifying people of color, women and youth. What this also means is more marginalized sex workers - those of color, women and young people- will be at even higher risk of being arrested and jailed for a crime they did not commit. There is already a disproportionately higher incidence of African American and Latinx people in these databases simply because of racist law enforcement arrest practices. Similarly, if public street cameras were installed it begs the question, what would undocumented folks do? This would obviously pose a huge danger to their safety and ability to live a peaceful, normal life or really any life at all in the United States.
Facial Recognition is scary, but it's also something that isn't going away. In fact, it only stands to become a bigger and bigger part of our daily lives. In George Orwell's novel 1984, one of the key messages seems to be about us as a society not becoming so complacent that we end up complicit in our own demise as a civilization. In the age of Trump and an incredibly important approaching presidential election, I do believe no message could be more relevant.