Privacy and the Rights of Sex Workers

Protecting trafficked women invades prostitutes' right to privacy

Posted Oct 07, 2012

I am sitting in Amsterdam, surrounded by several hundred other researchers, thinking deeply about the issue of privacy.  Is this irony? 

It's the opening  session of the Amsterdam Privacy Conference. A few things I have learned that I didn't know before . . .  

In the last few months, a student at the University of Amsterdam completed his dissertation on what information is most critical to strip from online files if we want to maintain the privacy of our data.  His findings took me aback and should give all of us pause.  He took government data from which names and the Dutch equivalent of social security numbers had been stripped.  Using only birth dates and towns, he could link individual data back to the 70% of the people who had provided it.  

Think about what that means.  Someone could take just two bits of information many of us reveal on Facebook or My Fitness Pal or webpages or blogs or Wikipedia profiles.

Hmmm . . .   That gave me pause. 


I also listened to the Mayor of Amsterdam discussing the complex and conflicting issues of different aspects of privacy from a legal and policy perspective.   In the Netherlands, prostitution is legal.  Nonetheless, over 60% of the women involved in prostitution are involved in the sex trade illegally.  The Mayor and others refer to these as 'trafficked' - either because they are exploited and involved in the sex trade against their will - they are trafficked, effectively slaves living in the center of a modern, liberal democratic country - or because they are illegal workers brought to the country to work voluntarily in conditions different from those they expect.  (Please see the comments section for a discussion of this issue.)

In fact, although the argument for legalization included belief that it would bring it out of the shadows and decrease trafficking, it has had the opposite effect.  Since legalization, prostitution has gone from a predominantly home-grown industry to one very heavily dependent on illegal foreign workers. To combat trafficking, a law was recently enacted making it illegal to purchase the services of a prostitute who is not registered with the government.  The goal is to protect trafficked women who are involved in the sex trade illegally.  But the privacy issues become complex. 

  • This law means that every person who wants to work as a prostitute has to go to town hall and be registered with the government.
  • Not only that, but it means that this information must be public so that the people who wish to hire such services can verify that the sex worker is, in fact, licensed to sell them.  
  • It also means that anyone who wishes to purchase these services must contact the government to ensure that the prostitute to be hired is legal.
  • And, of course, since many decisions to hire a prostitute are relatively spontaneous, the easiest way to have this information available would be through the internet.

Transparency and registration could potentially protect a fundamental right to privacy - women's right to control the integrity of their bodies. But it also invades the privacy of both people working voluntarily as prostitutes and the customers who are trying to ensure that the people they are hiring are, in fact, selling their services voluntarily. 

Not only that, but there comes the question of history.  We have all been warned that the internet never forgets. Those old pictures of you drunk in high school you posted on a lark?  Or those pictures of you - not quite naked - showing you before or after you lost 127 pounds?  Still lurking. 

And for those who worked legally and voluntarily as prostitutes?  Is that something they want potential employers or spouses or children or grandmothers to be able to find in a routine data search 10 years in the future?  Perhaps not.  Yet government records are often kept for valid historical purposes many years after the fact.  For many reasons, in fact, we might want to keep them forever.  


I also heard a fascinating discussion of the idea of contextual integrity.  Lack of contextual integrity may be exactly the issue that is really problematic about Google, Facebook, online medical records, and those wonderful, exciting new Massive Online Open Courses.   But that post will have to wait for tomorrow.