Photos are an integral part of the modern escort’s business. Gone are the days of two by two-centimetre text-only advertisements in the back of the local newspaper. Now, escorts have themed photoshoots that rival fashion magazine editorials. The ante has been sufficiently upped.
At the same time, the migration of sex work to online platforms means privacy has become more and more of a concern. It’s easier to obscure your identity when your advertisement is only two lines of text in a newspaper, than when it includes 20 high definition photos. And so, facial blurring began.
Facial blurring seems like the perfect solution for sex workers who wish to keep their identities private. It only takes a few clicks on an app to dissolve your face into a puddle of colour that is indistinguishable. But in a world where technology changes at the blink of an eye, is facial blurring enough to protect your privacy?
The simple answer is’ no’.
The more complicated answer is ‘it depends who you’re trying to protect your privacy from.’
If you are blurring your face to prevent people in your life from discovering your occupation, you might be successful. A blur might obscure your face enough so that you are unrecognisable to loved ones. Although, if this is your primary reason for blurring your face, I challenge you to do a quick exercise: present a trusted friend with a lineup of photographs with blurred faces and see if they can identify you – I bet they can. But, as modern-day sex workers, we have more to worry about than friends and family finding out.
One of the biggest privacy concerns for the modern sex worker is facial recognition systems that are already in place in airports worldwide. Facial recognition identifies and compiles data on travellers in airports, in an attempt to stop people entering countries illegally.
Facial recognition concerns sex workers, as many countries have legislation around sex work. The United States prevents anyone who has participated in sex work in the past ten years from entering the country. As a sex worker, you are at risk of being detained and questioned at the US border, even if you aren’t visiting the country for work.
If you blur your face, you might think you are safe from this type of discrimination. But you’re not.
Research has shown that obscuring your face DOES NOT hide you from facial recognition systems.
In this research, artificial intelligence undermines the privacy benefits of techniques like blurring or pixelation by learning to read or see what’s hidden in an image. The artificial intelligence doesn’t reconstruct images from scratch. Instead, the artificial intelligence finds what it knows to look for, like a certain object or a previously identified person’s face.
So, if someone were using artificial intelligence to search for you specifically, it wouldn’t matter if your face was blurred in your escort photos or not. All the artificial intelligence needs is a few non-blurred photos (perhaps from your Facebook or passport), and it will be able to recognise you in the blurred photos. Scary, right?
Some face-out sex workers believe they have already been targeted by facial recognition technology when crossing the US border. We don’t know whether this will extend to sex workers who blur their faces. But, if we’ve learned anything from Jurassic Park, it’s that humans can’t resist putting new technology to use, even if it’s a terrible idea.
So, what can you do?
Get creative and use props or poses to hide your face in photographs. Common methods are looking over your shoulder, shots taken from behind, or holding a book up to your face. It’s easier not to show your face in your photos at all, rather than trying to blur or cover it later.
Another option is to crop your head and shoulders out of the photo completely. This method won’t work for all images, but it may salvage some photoshoot photos that you have previously blurred.
If you can’t cover or crop your face, the next best option is to cover your face with a box. Research by Joon Oh, Benenson, Fritz and Schiele (2016; linked below) demonstrated that artificial intelligence had more difficulty recognising a face covered with a black or white box, than a blurred face (still, it wasn’t IMPOSSIBLE for the artificial intelligence to recognise the face, even it was when completely covered by the box).
The first thing I thought when I read this research was, “Oh great, because my escorting photos are going to look so good with a giant box over my face.” I guess how far you’re willing to go depends on how serious you are about protecting your privacy.
Fawkes is free software that subtly modifies elements of a photo before it is uploaded to the internet. The photo won’t look any different to the naked eye, but the changes make it more difficult for artificial intelligence to recognise your face. Once the changes have are made by software, you can then blur or place a box over the altered image for extra security.
Clearly, the power of facial recognition is an inconvenient truth that we’d all rather ignore. But it’s here, and it’s happening. And the more I read, the more it seems obvious that it is hard to completely avoid detection unless you live in a cave. You need to objectively weigh the cost of privacy vs the benefit of security when it comes to your business.