Opinion | Stand up for sex workers: Cancel the hackathon

By Jason Henriquez, Staff Columnist

Pitt’s first annual Hacking4Humanity event has become a source of controversy, with many people calling for the University to cancel it.

The event, hosted by Pitt Cyber, the University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information and the Ford Institute for Human Security, claims to focus on creating solutions to human trafficking with the stated goals of raising awareness, prosecuting perpetrators and supporting survivors.

Sex Workers Outreach Project Pittsburgh and the hundreds of people who have signed its petition against the hackathon doubt that it will help trafficking victims in the slightest and are calling for Pitt’s Innovation Institute to cancel the event.

“This event will target and endanger consensual sex workers, women victimized by sexual violence, migrants, and trafficked people around the world,” the local advocacy chapter said in the petition.

The hackathon organizers have not explicitly stated how the tech produced for the event will be used. When University spokesperson Joe Miksch was asked how the technology created for the event would be utilized to help trafficking victims, he said people will need to wait to see what is created.

The ambiguity of the supposed solutions is only further worrying activists.

SWOP Pittsburgh and the eight other organizations that have publicly endorsed its message understand the crucial flaw of this event: giving the state even more power for “prosecuting perpetrators,” as the hackathon Facebook page says, only harms the people it claims to protect.

Beth Schwanke, executive director of the event host Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, said the hackathon does not aim to target consensual sex workers.

“We’re mindful of the unintended consequences of technology and will encourage participants to be as well,” Schwanke said. “We have taken care in selecting mentors for the hackathon that will provide students with guidance on ethical development of technology.”

Schwanke is correct in that the hackathon does not explicitly mention sex workers in its promotions, but it is likely it will ultimately target them and others.

In an email interview, SWOP Pittsburgh organizer Jessie Sage cited a meta-study from Yale that shows up to 20 percent of sex workers report sexual harassment or assault by police officers. She emphasized that even trafficking victims suffer because of criminalization.

“[A]nother recent study by the National Survivor Network reports that over 90 percent of sex trafficking victims have been arrested and/or deported. To be clear, this isn’t a trade-off between doing good for sex trafficking victims at the expense of a few sex workers. Rather, these technologies that focus specifically on policing will negatively impact both sex workers and sex trafficking victims,” Sage said.

If the technologies created for the hackathon attempt to identify potential victims of trafficking so that law enforcement agencies can track them back to those running the operations, consensual sex workers could potentially suffer increased surveillance and arrests. Marriott International trained 500,000 hotel workers as of January this year to look for signs of human trafficking in its hotels, and according to Paper magazine, it scared sex workers across the country, including escort Veronica Santos.

“Some things listed were not speaking English well, having sex toys, condoms and lube, asking for extra towels and sheets and not wanting housekeeping in your room,” Santos told the magazine.

Sex workers travelling alone should not have to live under such absolute control. The estimated 1 million people in the U.S. who rely on sex work need a clientele to make a living for themselves and their families. Targeting supposed traffickers may lead to the arrests of consensual sex workers’ clients and prevent sex workers from safely earning the money that they need to survive.

Prosecuting perpetrators has violent, unintended consequences. A good example is the FOSTA-SESTA package became federal law April 2018. It banned websites like Backpage that helped sex workers safely connect with clients. The workers predicted that sex trafficking would increase as a result of this legislation — they were right. Through government prevention of online contact with clients, sex workers became vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking at greater rates. Technologies that facilitate this can lead to unsafe conditions for consensual sex workers. Increased prosecution for sex workers inflicts suffering on them and their struggling families.

Policies and inventions that help law enforcement agencies target sex workers, their safety or their means of survival are a net loss for society. Increased policing using current methods won’t work to fix trafficking, and new technology that targets sex work, rather than human trafficking, has the potential to cause further damage.

The best way to combat sex trafficking is to decriminalize sex work. Enabling people to safely provide for themselves without fear of police interference prevents them from entering most risky situations. This has been proven on a smaller scale through online platforms like Backpage that helped protect sex workers before they were taken down. They allowed sex workers to vet clients and act proactively.

SWOP Pittsburgh organizer Moriah Ella Mason is certain that nothing good will come from the hackathon.

“The hackathon is based upon a faulty premise,” Mason said. “We know from empirical research that policing and criminalization does not help sex trafficking victims. Encouraging students to develop tools for increased police surveillance harms victims and does a disservice to the students they are supposed to be educating.”

The University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute should listen to the mounting pressure and do the right thing: cancel Hacking4Humanity. It’s time to listen to people who may suffer the inadvertent consequences of an otherwise well-intentioned idea — not dismiss them.