How Facebook Risks Exposing Sex Workers
Leila is a sex worker. She goes to great lengths to keep separate identities for ordinary life and for sex work, to avoid stigma, arrest, professional blowback, or clients who might be stalkers (or worse).
Her “real identity”—the public one, who lives in California, uses an academic email address, and posts about politics—joined Facebook in 2011. Her sex-work identity is not on the social network at all; for it, she uses a different email address, a different phone number, and a different name. Yet earlier this year, looking at Facebook’s “People You May Know” recommendations, Leila (a name I’m using using in place of either of the names she uses) was shocked to see some of her regular sex-work clients.
Despite the fact that she’d only given Facebook information from her vanilla identity, the company had somehow discerned her real-world connection to these people—and, even more horrifyingly, her account was potentially being presented to them as a friend suggestion too, outing her regular identity to them.
Because Facebook insists on concealing the methods and data it uses to link one user to another, Leila is not able to find out how the network exposed her or take steps to prevent it from happening again.
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“It’s not just sex workers who are careful to shield their identities,” she said to me via Skype. “The people who hire sex workers are also very concerned with anonymity so they’re using alternative emails and alternative names. And sometimes they have phones that they only use for this, for hiring women. You have two ends of people using heightened security, because neither end wants their identity being revealed. And they’re having their real names connected on Facebook.”
When Leila queried secret support groups for sex workers, others said it had happened to them too.
“With all the precautions we take and the different phone numbers we use, why the fuck are they showing up? How is this happening?”
“The worst nightmare of sex workers is to have your real name out there, and Facebook connecting people like this is the harbinger of that nightmare,” she said. “With all the precautions we take and the different phone numbers we use, why the fuck are they showing up? How is this happening?”
It’s not a question that Facebook is willing to answer. The company is not forthcoming about how “People You May Know,” known internally as PYMK, makes its recommendations. Most of what Facebook does reveal about the feature is on a help page, which says that the suggestions “come from things like” mutual friends, shared networks or groups, or “contacts you’ve uploaded.”
When the suggestions turn out to be unnerving, that explanation is both vague and woefully incomplete. A Facebook spokesman told me this summer that there are more than 100 signals that go into PYMK. All someone like Leila—who was not connected to her clients by anything like mutual friends, networks, groups, or contacts—can know is that the data that exposed her must be something else, in that large undefined set of factors.
Leila suspects either that Facebook collected contact information from other apps on her phone or that it used location information, noticing that her and her clients’ smartphones were in the same place at the same time.
“We do not use information from third party apps to show friend suggestions in People You May Know,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote via email. Facebook has said before that it doesn’t use location information for People You May Know, and the spokesperson confirmed that policy: “People You May Know suggestions are not informed by your smartphone’s Location Services.”
So the linkage between Leila and her clients remains a mystery. While the algorithmic black box that is PYMK is simply creepy to most of us, the intrusive network analysis can have serious consequences for people in the sex work and porn industry. One sex toy reviewer devoted a section of her digital security advice to the feature, her cleverest suggestion being to choose a profile photo that doesn’t show your face.
“People think because you have sex on camera, privacy isn’t a big deal for you,” said Mike Stabile, spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition, a California-based advocacy group for adult performers. “But in this industry, privacy is so important. Performers worry about stalkers on a daily basis.”
Stabile says concerns about People You May Know also go the other way, when people’s accounts for their sex work persona are recommended to people they know in their real, vanilla lives like relatives and friends.
That’s what Ela Darling worries about. Darling, who manages virtual reality adult broadcasting at CAM4, has been working in pornography for eight years, but her family members don’t know that.
“I don’t want my 15-year-old cousin to discover I’m a porn star because my account gets recommended to them on Facebook,” Darling told me by phone.
To combat this, she searches Facebook every few weeks for the last names of her family and extended family to see if any of her relatives have joined the network or created a new account. If they have, she blocks them.
Darling used to have a second, private account under her legal name for connecting with people she knew in her normal, vanilla life, but it was getting recommended to her fans, revealing her “real” identity to them. Some of them began harassing her and trying to track down her family.
“We’re living in an age where you can weaponize personal information against people,” Darling said. She’s not sure how Facebook linked her porn identity to her legal identity, but it meant one had to go. She deleted her private account a few years ago, leaving only her public, porn one.
“Facebook isn’t a luxury,” Darling said. “It’s a utility in our lives. For something that big to be so secretive and powerful in how it accumulates your information is unnerving.”
The outing problem is, like Facebook’s ongoing fake-news scandals, a result of the company’s growth-above-all strategy: First round up as many users as possible, then start cleaning up (or not) the side effects of operating at that scale. People You May Know may be incidental to an individual user’s experience, but it extends the reach and density of the network.