How Facebook Outs Sex Workers

Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG

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.


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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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Change that to “no one” to stop showing up in “People You
May Know” on Facebook.

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.

This story was produced by Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk.

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