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UMD Researchers Find Sex Workers Vulnerable to Digital Dangers

Better Tools Needed to Stop Online Stalking, Harassment of Vulnerable Populations

By Maria Herd

Eerie image of stalkerish looking hand on pink phone screen

Sex workers and other vulnerable groups lack tools they need to stay safe online, new UMD research has found.

Photo by Stocksy

An estimated 42 million sex workers worldwide drive more than $180 billion in revenue annually, often relying on the internet to connect with customers—a practice that exposes them to online safety and privacy challenges.

While researchers know that sex workers and other vulnerable groups, including trans people and intimate partner abuse survivors, face higher rates of stalking, harassment and assault, few studies have focused on improving digital security tools with them in mind.

New research from a multi-institutional team of digital security analysts takes on the question, finding that sex workers are aware of cyberstalking and other risks they face, and employ multiple ways to protect themselves. However, they often rely on manual strategies such as using multiple devices, since current cybersecurity tools don’t address their safety needs, like the ability to work anonymously or under assumed names online.

The study was co-authored by Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland and director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center (MC2), then presented at the 2021 USENIX Security Symposium, where it was one of a seven to receive a Distinguished Paper Award out of more than 1,000 that were submitted.

Sex workers face particular privacy risks that present security analysts with unique challenges, Mazurek said.

“Many sex workers, quite understandably, are leery of researchers or interview requests,” she said. “Our team worked hard to assuage their concerns and respect their privacy.”

Mazurek’s partners included researchers from Clemson University and the University of Michigan, as well as former MC2 researcher Elissa Redmiles (B.S. ’13, M.S. ’18, Ph.D. ’19).

Redmiles builds scalable, online platforms to run highly controlled behavioral economics experiments to properly simulate the risk and cost tradeoffs that users make in security situations. She designed and conducted the study as a visiting researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Saarbrücken, Germany, where she now works as a research group leader.

Through surveys and interviews with 29 sex workers from both countries—where sex work is legal—her team examined participants’ safety goals, including how they perceive risks to their safety from clients, platforms and legal entities.

The researchers say their findings demonstrate the importance of studying high-risk populations and underscore the need for a more holistic design of security tools. They recommend allowing users to have fully pseudonymous profiles—unlinked from emails and phone numbers used elsewhere—to reduce the digital boundary violations that often lead to stalking and harassment.

“Elissa and her team did a fantastic job with the qualitative analysis, not just summarizing, but pulling out deep themes and critical observations that really got to the heart of the issues at hand,” said Mazurek. “This makes the findings significantly more actionable and impactful for future researchers, or others trying to build privacy and security tools that fit in with sex workers' needs and priorities.”

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