Lessons on Privacy from the Adult Entertainment Industry at SXSWi

Lessons on Privacy from the Adult Industry

Lessons on privacy, policy, and the technology of sex work (Image courtesy of Techstagram)

Yes, I know it’s been over for a few weeks now, but I still have some South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) notes about some interesting stuff that I encountered there that I would like to share with you all, so I hope you don’t mind.

Note to Readers: This post discusses topics related to adult industries, and specifically the sex worker sector.  If this type subject matter offends you, please skip this post.  Thanks!

One of the simultaneous joys and frustrations of SXSWi — which I discussed a little bit elsewhere — is that there are so many more talks than you can go to that you are almost guaranteed to miss something you’d like to see, see something unexpected, and end up in a clinker or two.  And so it was on this occasion: I really wanted to see the talk about Google Glass, “Building New Experiences with Google Glass”, but when I got there — shocker! — it was totally full.  Not even standing room only at that point, just simply packed.  So I wandered away and, clicking through the schedule for what was going on at the same time, found a very interesting talk on online privacy.

But here’s the thing:  It was told from the perspective of a sex worker.

Here at Gear Diary, we keep things pretty much PG-13 at most.  And so I’ve struggled with how to share this information with you all.  But I have finally decided to put it out there for you because I think that sex workers — escorts, dancers, cam models, and all the rest — are in many ways an acid test for online security of information.

For many, if not most, sex workers, their very job is — as presenter Sabrina Morgan put it — “in a legal grey area”.  You are often not going to get much help from the police if your privacy is violated and you find yourself, say, being shaken down by a client, or a former co-worker, or a close working associate.  So despite all the derision with which one might greet this topic, sex workers have had to become extremely savvy with regard to privacy and how it relates to technology.  And I really want to share some of Ms. Morgan’s thoughts with you, because they are interesting in general, not just if you are interested in sex work.

Lessons on Privacy from the Adult Industry

Image courtesy of Blogoscoped

And I should also note that there were quite a few sexually focused talks at SXSWi.  While we in the U.S. tend to push it underground as much as possible, if you’ve been online even for a short time, you know how big the online adult industry is, and might even be aware that the adult industry was one of the first to successfully make money on the Web.  For all the negative connotations, the adult industry and sex work industry are frequently right out on the bleeding edge when it comes to technology, believe it or not.

So as I mentioned, the speaker was Sabrina Morgan, who is both a sex worker and a speaker for sex worker’s rights.  One of the things she noted was that, in a “gray legal area” like sex work, privacy and your identity are your most valuable property.  Your personal identity, and the identity of your clients, are two things that must be kept confidential.  In that environment, you can see how online privacy and digital privacy are a topic of extreme interest to these folks.

I found her talk very interesting, but a lot of it was more in the area of advocacy for the decriminalization of sex work (which I absolutely believe in, but that’s just my personal take, not necessarily anyone else at Gear Diary’s official view), so I only am going to relay a few of the tech-related things she talked about:

  • Sex workers usually use a “hobby phone” (also sometimes called a “burner phone”, usually a prepaid phone), and they recommend that their clients do the same.  Regular phones contain too much information, and make it too easy to track things you don’t want tracked.  It is easy for me to imagine this applying to ordinary folks, too.  If you watch a lot of police procedurals (I love “Elementary” and “Castle”, among others, and was a huge fan of “Monk”), you might hear a lot about “burner phones” to give them a negative connotation.  But think about it:  You are giving an incredible amount of information to potential surveillors when using (say) your iPhone — your name, your location, your purchases, who you’re talking to, and many, many other things.  Using a “hobby phone” for some of your activities could protect you from that, if you are so inclined. 
  • While they keep their identity as private as possible — “Sabrina Morgan” is her professional name, for example — she acknowledged that with cameras becoming cheaper and better, and with facial recognition software improving, that poses an issue.  In an online world, this can be very important for everyone.  While I have rarely found the need to use an alias online, there are plenty of people who need that.  For example, I know of a person who works in the financial industry, but also regularly posts to a blog; in order to protect both his employer and the blog, he writes under an alias.  And there are any other number of very legitimate reasons to protect your identity online.  To hear about the need for privacy from someone for whom her identity is almost her most precious commodity was very illuminating.
  • Managing your money when in a legal gray area is difficult; you don’t have the support of the state, and your professional activities are under a pseudonym.  For example, what do you do about your records?  She indicated that there is really only one option for that:  safe office.  And it is easy for me to imagine other folks in other businesses who might need a similar solution; I find it unfortunate that there’s only one current option to fill that need.
  • While records are a problem, I was startled to find that the IRS isn’t.  Sabrina indicated that the IRS is really just interested in getting their money, and she is actually able to indicate that her job is “sex worker” on her 1040, and she hasn’t been bothered by the federal government.  Even more, she has found that the IRS is very cooperative and open to her needs; when she needs to get copies of past returns to show to (for example) potential landlords, the IRS helps by redacting the areas that might make difficulties for her!  The lesson here: You pay the IRS, and they leave you be!  And this applies to everyone! If you are running a business (even one in a “gray legal area”), as long as you are making regular payments to the IRS and you have clear records, the government won’t bother you.  Good to know!

She noted that working in the Internet era has absolutely made a number of issues in her business easier, but it has also created problems that you have to be cognizant of.  Given that this isn’t a world with which I’m familiar (other than reading Tracy’ Quan’s posts in Salon), I found it absolutely fascinating to get this glimpse into the life of folks in the sex work industry, and their online and privacy needs.  (And maybe I’ll do a post on my blog about the rest of her talk!)  But what do you think?  Why don’t you share it with us below!


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