The Risks of Existing Online: Protecting Yourself As A Content Creator

Credit: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

In 2019, Japanese pop idol Ena Matsuoka was assaulted by a stalker who followed her home from a train station. He reportedly identified by comparing the scenery reflected in Matsuoka’s eyes in her selfies to Google Street View images. He later told police he’d tried to determine the floor and location of Matsuoka’s apartment by studying the angle at which light entered her apartment windows on her Instagram. 

Threats, Harassment, Risks, and Reward

As someone who earns a living as an online content creator, this case has stuck with me. It’s an extreme and probably statistically unlikely occurrence. But, it exists at the end of a spectrum of harassment that begins online and crosses into real-life violence. Stories like Matsuoka’s remind me not to underestimate the potential technological competence, free time, and obsession of ill-willed strangers watching us online.

For creatives who put so much of ourselves into the virtual world, working online is a balancing act between being real enough to connect and remembering that not everyone who follows us is a fan.

Content creators of every stripe have concerns about “real world” information being shared without their consent. However, the stigma surrounding sex work means that being publicly outed for what we do puts us at risk. The risk of domestic violence, of losing current/future jobs, bank accounts, housing, and other pillars of survival, simply for our choice of work.

The most harmless end of the spectrum may be easy to dismiss as simple online trolling. However, risks can escalate quickly when your choice of profession can be weaponized against you socially and legally. 

Having one’s “real name” connected with participation in adult entertainment and/or in-person sex work isn’t a casual violation. It can mean deportation, rejection of visa applications, or being turned away at the border. It can be weaponized by ex-partners arguing against one’s fitness to parent in custody battles.

It can hold us back professionally in a thousand ways. From the loss of scholarships and withdrawal of support from academic/professional mentors in our “vanilla” lives to not being able to work with institutions or brands who don’t want the stain of hiring or working with anyone who has done anything in the adult industry. 

The threat of exposure carries additional layers of violence. For full-service sex workers in countries where such services are criminalized, doxxing can mean the end of their life as they know it. With especially dangerous consequences for multiply-marginalized workers, such as people of color, undocumented, and queer individuals, many of us live in fear.

In the best of cases, the stigmatization of the adult industry limits our ability to live lives as full and safe as our non-sex-working peers. At worst, it can get us killed.

Protecting Yourself (And Your Identity) On The Internet

My coworkers juggle a number of different risk factors. We are wary enough to carry out basic precautions. We remove EXIF data from photos & keep location data turned off on posts. We check images for accidental “clues” that may give too much away: restaurant menu, framed personal photographs, signage for a local independent business, street signs, city skyline/landmarks/street art visible from your window.

In spite of all our digital hygiene habits and vigilance, each upward leap in camera quality and the increasing sophistication and availability of technologies like facial recognition software brings added risks.

Both live webcam platforms and subscriber-based content platforms like Onlyfans have been using facial recognition and mapping technology for the last couple of years. It’s used to verify performers via identity checks on third-party adult platforms, and to identify other faces appearing in streams and content that belong to people not authorized to perform on the platform.

There is little transparency about who has access to this information, (along with performers’ government identification!) or how long it might continue to be saved. Sex workers have been reporting suspension of their Airbnb accounts – and even being denied entry to the US – as a result of their work in the adult industry for years now. facial recognition technologies are only making it easier for us to be linked to our “work” presences online.

By no means is access to this technology restricted to companies and legal authorities. If you have a public, “face-out” presence online, unrelated photos of your face can potentially be used to find it.

Pimeyes is one such publicly-available tool that uses facial mapping and recognition to find other pictures of a person online – a quick no-makeup selfie I took at my desk while writing this article pulled up selfies I’ve posted to my Twitter account, as well as screenshots of my early webcam performances recorded by bots for “webcam leak” sites without my consent. A friend of mine ran a Pimeyes search on a promo image they posted to Twitter and it pulled up a photo of them standing in a crowd at a local protest. 

I’ve been creating 18+ content across subscription, livestreaming, and social media platforms for five years now. There are a few persistent creeps who create multiple accounts to leak my content, threaten, and/or harass me for anywhere from weeks to years at a time. I don’t know what the odds are that one of them would take it further, but I don’t want to find out.

Most of my colleagues have similar experiences with at least one especially persistent harasser. Some are consumers of our content, but others might be disgruntled coworkers, ex-partners, or malicious parties in our “offline lives” extending their harassment online.

There are a lot of ill-willed strangers out there who make a hobby out of stalking sex workers online, waiting for us to give away innocuous details, like local weather, clubs/groups we belong to, events we plan on attending, that they can put together like some kind of sick puzzle.

My purpose in sharing these experiences is not to scare anyone, but to remind anyone who wants to share their creativity online to be conscientious about their digital footprint and the kinds of personal information they share with thousands of strangers online.

As great as it might feel to share your wins with the world, the outside of your new home or the license plate on your new car is enough for a determined enough sleuth to find out more than you’d like to share. An excited comment about seeing your favorite band (assuming they have an online presence) in concert on Friday night is basically an announcement of where you’re going to be on Friday night. Your safety is more important than social media likes.

Here are some other actionable methods for anyone to limit the risk of giving away sensitive information online:

  • Limit overlap between your “work” and “personal” lives. Before you start working online, deactivate or lock down any social media associated with your real name (change it to a nickname if possible). Limit the amount of “real world” information viewable on your profile if you chose to keep a private account. Change your profile picture to something other than your face and don’t post photos to your work socials that have been posted on your private social media. 
  • Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) to log into apps/sites where possible. Link it to Google Authenticator, Authy or other authenticator app rather than your phone number to avoid access to codes sent via SMS via SIM spoofing.
  • Disconnect contact syncing on Instagram and other apps that use your phone number to avoid your “work” account coming up as a suggested contact for people who’ve added you as a contact IRL.
  • Be careful what you talk about on stream, in group chats, etc – you can’t predict what anyone will do with what you tell them. Academic history, local businesses you frequent, events you plan on attending, clubs or groups you belong(ed) to, academic and work history, are all examples of information that can be potentially compromising. 
  • Avoid being too specific or exact about details when telling personal anecdotes, or “getting too local” in general – describing local festivals, specific weather events, etc. 
  • Location, location, location! Don’t post about where you are until after you’ve left, and don’t post pictures of people from your personal life that you don’t want subjected to unwanted scrutiny from your follower base. Other than your home, school, job, etc, be wary about giving away locations that are a regular part of your routine. This is especially true if they can be identified via distinctive logos, street signs, landmarks, or other “clues” visible in the shot.
  • Friends/family who want to tag every person, place or thing in all of their posts can cause issues if you’re concerned with maintaining your privacy online. Completely well-meaning friends can be absent-minded or not realize that you’d rather keep a personal detail private, so let them know you’re someone who’s concerned with their online privacy. If you don’t want to discuss why (eg, not out to them about your 18+ work), try to convince them you’re “just a private person”, cutting out social media for better productivity and self-care, don’t want people from your job finding you online, etc. 
  • Livestreaming? Be mindful of what viewers can see at all times, including what’s visible on your monitor during screen-sharing. Remember: a certain prominent online misogynist recently gave away his location via a pizza box. If you choose to use a wireless keyboard while streaming, ensure that it’s offscreen while you’re typing. 
  • Keep in mind that anything you do on stream or in your content will likely be recorded and redistributed without your consent. 
  • Familiarize yourself with removal of leaked content and personal information on any platforms you’re active on. Content removal agencies like Rulta can file DMCA takedowns on your behalf for a fee (filing on your own requires submission of a name and address that can be seen by party hosting unauthorized content) if reporting content to platform support isn’t possible.