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 such as escorts, (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.