Twitter Is Asking Sex Workers If They’re Bots and Demanding Their Phone Numbers

UPDATE: Twitter “inadvertently” used phone numbers and email addresses its users provided for account security purposes to target ads, the company said Tuesday.

In July, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Facebook had broken the law when it engaged in a similar practice. The FTC fined Facebook $5 billion for that and a litany of other instances where it mishandled user data.

Twitter users are asked to provide information like their phone number to help secure their account through services such as two-factor authentication.

“We cannot say with certainty how many people were impacted by this, but in an effort to be transparent, we wanted to make everyone aware,” the company said in a blog post Tuesday. It said no personal data had been shared externally.

“We’re very sorry this happened and are taking steps to make sure we don’t make a mistake like this again,” the company added.

Phone numbers provided to Twitter for the purpose of two-factor authentication were recently exposed as a hacking vulnerability as well. A hacker or hackers were able to tweet from the account of CEO Jack Dorsey by convincing Twitter’s systems that they had his phone and were texting the tweets to his account.

By Samantha Cole

Sex is allowed on Twitter. It’s right there in the terms of use. “Sensitive content” like sex and nudity is allowed, as long as it’s not featured in the header image of your profile or your profile picture.

But after another spate of sex worker Twitter accounts being limited or locked, users who rely on social media to connect with fans and others in the community are once again reminded that they’re at the mercy of big tech platforms. Motherboard has seen at least a dozen sex workers complain that they’ve been locked out, or were forced to verify phone numbers to continue using their accounts.

“There is nothing indicating any major crackdown,” a spokesperson for Twitter told Motherboard. The Twitter spokesperson also said the accounts may have been suspected of spam and that they’ll be able to get help by providing Twitter with the requested information.

Across the platform, users—mainly people who tweet adult or NSFW content—are posting screenshots of notices on Twitter that their accounts have been limited or locked. Most of the notices include a message saying that they need to confirm they’re not a bot, and verify their phone number to get account access back. “Easy, right?” the message says.

Motherboard was able to find multiple reports of sex workers’ accounts being locked or placed on temporary suspension Thursday and Friday. Many were reinstated quickly, or after they verified phone numbers, but for many sex workers it’s a reminder of their delicate relationship with social media platforms.

“Denying access to technology for a select group of people should be understood as a form of structural violence,” dominatrix Mistress Blunt, whose account was temporarily locked this week, told Motherboard. “People use tools like Twitter to organize, build community, and build their business. When some people have access to these tools and others don’t it creates further entrenching inequalities.”

After the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act passed last year, platforms used the bill to justify shutting down sections of websites (like Craigslist Personals) or whole websites (like Backpage.com) that sex workers used to vet clients, share safety information, and advertise. Instagram continues to be hostile toward any adult content. Tumblr banned NSFW content earlier this year. Facebook has been incredibly prudish for years.

Some sex workers are concerned about adding their phone numbers—a sensitive piece of personal information—to a website with the potential to be hacked or exploited. Just last week, Twitter’s own founder and CEO Jack Dorsey had his account taken over by a SIM swapping hacker who exploited his phone number to gain access.

“I don’t want my phone number tied to anything I do online,” Adrie Rose, a sex worker, freelancer, and grad student, told Motherboard. She has used a Google Voice phone number in the past to circumvent having to use a cell number to verify accounts.

“That anonymity is the point—we don’t get to operate openly,” she said. “Even if SESTA/FOSTA wasn’t a thing, sex workers are the bottom of society, largely because we occupy so many other marginal demographics (yay systemic oppression) but also because sex is this dirty, shameful thing that we can’t talk about.”

Twitter is one of the only spaces sex workers have left that reaches a mainstream audience—where they can access users on a platform that’s not relegated to a porn website or designated NSFW platform separate from the rest of the online world. And it’s getting harder and harder for them to stay there.

“Twitter can continue to fuck over sex workers even while they claim to support us,” Rose said. “Twitter knows that we literally cannot go anywhere else and so they can do whatever they want armed with the knowledge that no one is advocating for us, except us.”

Read more:

Better than Backpage/Craigslist

How to beat any prostitution sting (10 easy steps to spot-stay ahead of LE)

How to De Criminalize Prostitution for Dummies

Sex Work Is Work—And Its Laborers Are Officially Unionizing

Sex Work Should be Legal — If Only to Protect Women from Police

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