Belfast Telegraph

Sex workers say Google could put lives at risk if safety app functions disabled

The Ugly Mugs app allows workers to screen incoming calls and text messages for potential danger.

(PA)
(PA)

Irish sex workers say Google could potentially be putting lives at risk if it disables key functions on an app used to warn of dangerous clients.

The decision was taken by the tech giant last year to refine its Developer Program Policies to include limits on call logs and SMS permission access on apps in the Google Play Store.

The new limitations could have serious consequences for some sex workers, as the prominent safety app UglyMugs, which is used by hundreds of people in the UK and Ireland, looks likely to lose key functionality or be removed from the Play Store completely next month.

The Ugly Mugs app, developed by London-based Safe IQ, has been using these features since 2013, allowing workers to screen incoming calls and text messages for potential danger, and use a traffic light system (yellow, orange, red) to review clients.

The app also allows users to manually search for phone numbers in a database to check if they are associated with potentially dangerous clients.

Ugly Mugs has been told it must remove the call screening feature from the app, or face removal completely, as the call screening feature was “determined to be unnecessary or not aligned with the core functionality of (the) app”.

Ugly Mugs applied for an exception to the policy, but was unsuccessful, and has applied a second time, however if it is turned down again, it must remove all automatic call screening features from the app by March 3.

Google has already granted a number of exceptions for other apps using the feature.

Lucy Smyth, from SafeIQ, says the app is essential for the most vulnerable in society.

“Taking away these automatic alerts will be removing a tool a very marginalised and vulnerable group of people absolutely rely on to stay safer,” she said.

“Google has the power to enable sex workers to continue receiving these automatic safety alerts, by giving UglyMugs.ie an exception, as they have various other apps.

“Google’s motto is ‘Don’t be evil’ or ‘Do the right thing’. To take away a vital safety tool from one of the most marginalised and at risk of crime groups in society is not compatible with this.”

Likewise, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) have flagged major concerns about potential danger arising from the app being discontinued.

“This app is used by sex workers all over Ireland on a daily basis and they rely on it to keep them safe. It is extremely concerning that the app, which keeps sex workers from potentially dangerous clients and has helped prevent many attacks, is having one of its key features removed,” a spokeswoman said.

One sex worker, Catriona, added: “I use this app all the time and honestly without it I would probably be beaten or robbed.

“This is something I don’t say lightly, but my safety has been indispensable to the existent of this app. I am really worried for myself and my colleagues, that such an important part of the app is being removed.”

A spokeswoman for Google said the company had “no comment to make”.

Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland introduced the Nordic Model for sex work in recent years, which criminalises the purchase of sex.

Ugly Mugs and other sex worker-led organisations have reported increased violence against sex workers since the laws came into effect.

Press Association

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