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How Facebook Outs Sex Workers

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout' started by No Worries, Oct 12, 2017.

  1. No Worries

    No Worries Contributing Member

    Jun 30, 1999
    Likes Received:
    How Facebook Outs Sex Workers

    Leila has two identities, but Facebook is only supposed to know about one of them.
    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.

    “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.

    “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 **** 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.

    “For sex workers, this is a huge threat. This is life or death for us,” Leila said.

    An obvious solution, from a user’s point of view, would be for Facebook to fully explain what data it uses to make friend suggestions, and to allow users to filter it or opt out of the People You May Know feature entirely. That way, someone concerned about having their identity exposed—whether a sex worker, a domestic violence victim, or a political activist—wouldn’t have to worry about having their account shown to someone who shouldn’t see it.

    “An opt out is not something we think people would find useful,” the spokesperson wrote. “For example, even for people who have been on Facebook for a long time and already have lots of friends, most of us like to know when someone we know has joined Facebook for the first time.”

    According to the Facebook spokesperson, while there is no way to clearly and directly opt out of the People You May Know feature, there’s an undocumented trick that does enable users to stop appearing in it. It just requires them to shut off their ability to receive any friend requests at all.

    “People can always control who can send them friend requests by visiting their account settings,” said the spokesperson. “If they select ‘no one,’ they won’t appear in others’ People You May Know.”

    This solution, which is not explained in any of Facebook’s many help pages, would allow Leila to protect herself from exposure, although at the expense of one of Facebook’s basic functions. And it wouldn’t work for Darling as her account exists for fans to find and follow. So the need for a PYMK opt out remains.

    “We take privacy seriously and of course want to make sure people have a safe and positive experience on Facebook,” the Facebook spokesperson wrote. “For people who choose to maintain a separate identity, we’ve put safeguards in place to help them understand their privacy choices, moderate comments, block people, control location sharing, and report abusive content.”

    Facebook also says you can just “X” out anyone who appears in “People You May Know” that you don’t want to know. Sometimes, though, just appearing there means the damage is already done.
    JuanValdez likes this.
  2. Invisible Fan

    Invisible Fan Contributing Member

    Dec 5, 2001
    Likes Received:
    So. .. a friend is curious and is wondering who that individual is in jbasket's avatar. ..
  3. asianballa23

    asianballa23 Member

    May 24, 2003
    Likes Received:
    simple, just dont show any face pics on your sex work
    facebok page.
  4. Invisible Fan

    Invisible Fan Contributing Member

    Dec 5, 2001
    Likes Received:
    If you read the story, they didn'thave page for their work. The app and whatever hooks it had in other apps made the 3Rd hand connections between them she their Johns.
  5. alexcapone

    alexcapone Contributing Member

    Dec 10, 2004
    Likes Received:
    They need to use separate phones for their work and not carry their personal phone on them when they're working. I don't see how facebook could make any sort of connections if they did that. Alternatively, don't use social media if you want to stay low profile.
  6. Haymitch

    Haymitch Contributing Member

    Dec 22, 2005
    Likes Received:
    There are so many problems in life I avoided just by getting off social media years ago. Not one of my cam show subscribers has ever come close to finding out my true identity.
    Mathrocker and Sajan like this.
  7. Sajan

    Sajan Member

    Apr 18, 2009
    Likes Received:
    it's funny people think facebook is not tracking her all over the web and other stuff she does on her phone.
    they probably have data points from a million other things.
  8. Space Ghost

    Space Ghost Contributing Member
    Supporting Member

    Feb 14, 1999
    Likes Received:
    Pretty much this. The general public vastly underestimates the use of metadata. Facebook and Googles algorithms are insane. One should assume your phone is capturing every piece of data it can possible get. A phone has several different sensors and its all being tracked and sent out, nevermind the actual use of the phone.
  9. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member
    Supporting Member

    Oct 5, 1999
    Likes Received:
    Given enough information . . . . you can discover anything
    Facebook is about taking info . . .. not giving any . . . . so they not about to let them know their algorithm

    The first thing is to not have a profile picture or background with them in it
    Basically meaning someone would have to goto their page and pictures to see who they are
    and it would not be in that PEOPLE YOU KNOW thing

    Sex Worker Problems . . . ..

    Rocket River

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