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As someone with a background in the tech industry, I regularly field a lot of privacy & security questions from other sex workers. Lately, one subject that’s come up with repeated urgency is about avoiding facial recognition. The same technology that unlocks our phones can unlock a Pandora’s box of unwanted surveillance, bias, and misuse – especially when stalkers come into the mix.
Since SWers tend to be an intensely clever group who crave context, I included a lil primer about how these systems work & the ethical issues they bring up. But if you’re short on time, skip to the end for my recommendations on how to avoid facial recognition for face-in providers.
How does facial recognition work?
Traditional facial recognition (FR) systems worked by identifying specific facial features (e.g. eyes, eyebrows, lips) and calculating the distances/proportions between them. Now, more modern systems leverage advanced machine learning to create numerical representations of your face. Think of this like a “faceprint”. These newer systems can identify or verify faces even when some facial features are obscured, like how an iPhone can still use FaceID even when you’re wearing a mask. In all facial recognition systems, the more facial features that are visible, the easier it is to get an accurate match.
Facial recognition tools are rife with intrinsic biases & privacy issues. Like most AI systems, they tend to reflect societal biases and are therefore inherently racist and sexist. For instance, FR systems tend to be very accurate at identifying light-skinned men, but have a high error rate at identifying dark-skinned women (I recommend Timnit Gebru’s research for more on this). This is especially problematic in a law enforcement context, where it’s led to many instances of wrongful arrests among people of color.
Most FR systems don’t ask for your consent to be analyzed or included in their data set, because legally, they’re not required to. As of 2023, there are no federal laws or regulations surrounding the development or usage of FR tools in the United States. The lack of regulation and oversight for FR has led to the development of search tools that can be used for stalking and doxxing, which I won’t link here because I prefer not to publicize them further.
As an aside, I can’t get over the irony that Mastercard won’t allow you to sell vampire porn with fake blood, but they have zero ethical qualms about processing payments for privacy-invading facial recognition search engines that are primarily used for doxxing. Fucked, right?
The fear of facial identification can have a major social and psychological impact if you’re a sex worker. Like many of us, I started my career in sex work as ‘face-in’ (obscuring my face) due to the fear of social stigma, housing discrimination, travel bans, and the knowledge that I’d be forever flagged in some arcane government database. I know many sex workers who’ve faced far harsher penalties due to facial identification: they’ve lost custody of their kids, been kicked out of their apartments, fired from their day jobs, denied internships, boxed out of academic institutions, deported from their homes.
When the stakes are this high, you face a lot of competing pressures: do I show my face and earn a better living, or do I hide it to protect my privacy? How much do I need to hide, and what’s the best way to do this?
Let’s dig into it.
How can I avoid being recognized?
As with most things in AI, this is an area that’s under rapid development. New adversarial tactics are created just as quickly as they’re countered, so any cutting-edge technique you try today might be invalid tomorrow. However, I do have a few recommendations that should hold true for a while.
One important note: Like most of my security advice, I’m not going to discuss evading governmental surveillance because that’s extraordinarily difficult (particularly in the US). Simply blocking or cropping your face isn’t enough: federal law enforcement can combine tons of data sources to make positive IDs, even if your face is covered. To make things worse, ad sites like Eros share our legal names, faces, and IDs with the DHS. Instead, this article will focus on techniques that will block the consumer-grade facial recognition tools frequently used by stalkers.
If you’re face-in…
I strongly suggest physically or digitally covering your face instead of blurring it. Many types of blurs can be undone programmatically, which means that a dedicated stalker can use readily-available online tools to recover your facial features. I cringe every time I see a large pic with gently-blurred eyes that becomes completely identifiable when it’s sharpened into a thumbnail-sized photo.
- How much of my face do I need to cover? This depends on your risk profile. In most cases, I recommend covering your entire face – just hiding your eyes isn’t enough. In my personal research, I was able to use FR tools to identify a (consenting) friend who appeared in the background of a few photos from a street fair in her neighborhood. She was wearing oversized sunglasses that blocked her eyes/eyebrows, but the combination of only two visible major features (nose + lips) was enough to trigger a positive match.
- How should I cover my face? Use opaque methods. In the physical realm, a hat that blocks your eyes + nose is far better than sunglasses; hands are better than a thin layer of hair. I love putting face-in submissives in hoods to completely obscure their faces when I shoot clips. Digitally, some popular methods are overlaying emojis/stickers or paint/lipstick swabs. I don’t recommend using light leaks, starbursts, or glows as these tend to have a lot of transparency and can be easily digitally altered to reveal more of your face. If you crop out your face in photos and you use Android or Windows, make sure you’ve applied the latest operating system updates to avoid a major bug in which your photos can be un-cropped.
- What about the rest of my body? There are so many things you can do! If you have tattoos, make sure that they’re either completely obscured by clothing or fully retouched (again, don’t rely on blurs). Newer FR systems can use distinctive markings like moles or scars when generating a “faceprint”, so when I edit photos for other people I usually remove these markings from their faces and bodies.
- Some other things to consider: positive IDs can be made on more than just your face. If you have a strong need for privacy, it’s worth thinking in-depth about how to increase the separation between your personal and work identities. I was once recognized by a client for wearing the same lingerie in different photoshoots for two different SW personas. In more extreme examples, people have been tracked down based on reflections in their pupils or recognizable hotel room elements.
That being said, the type of extreme separation required to prevent these vulnerabilities can create a lot of undue stress and is often impractical. How many of us can afford an entire second filming location? A more reasonable precaution is to set up one part of your living space for filming and make sure it has no identifiable items in it (especially decorations, unique architectural or interior design elements, or window reflections).
If you’re face-out…
We’re in the same boat: our options are unfortunately far more limited.
I interviewed a few friends with deep subject matter expertise in this area and their common refrain was “well, you can try, but…”. Lots of adversarial techniques — like facial cloaking, makeup techniques, plastic surgery — are defeated just as quicky as they’re conceptualized. It’s difficult to stay on top of the research here because this field is evolving at an aggressive speed. I’ve heard anecdotal accounts that making subtle alterations to your face (e.g. tweaking the angles & distance between your eyes/nose/lips via the Liquify tool in Photoshop) have fooled some of the more accurate consumer-grade FR search tools, but I wasn’t able to design a reliable experiment to validate this and I absolutely wouldn’t rely on this to keep yourself safe.
Your best bet here is to focus on instead limiting or eliminating photos of your vanilla identity from the web, to make it harder for potential stalkers to recognize you if they do run across you. If you’re able to, I suggest putting your personal accounts on private, removing thumbnails of your face, and submitting takedown requests to FR search engines and any sites that publish photos of you alongside your real name.
If you’re a face-out provider who’s nervous about facial recognition, I made a short video tutorial in 2022 about a now-common doxxing flow and how to prevent it. I don’t share info like this publicly because it can be used adversarially. For a link to that vid, hit up my assistant Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org with some sort of validation that you’re a sex worker & not some creepy dude, and she’ll share it with you directly.
Stay safe babes,