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A government-backed app offering support to sex workers in Scotland has come under scrutiny by the very community it is supposed to help, after concerns about potential privacy and data collection problems were raised.

Scottish community safety charity Sacro was awarded the £1,000,000 fund in March to launch an app for the 1,500 sex workers in Scotland who find their clients online.

The app was built to recognise the decline in physical street prostitution and offer support to those who might not work in traditional urban hotspots for sex work, in close proximity to drop-in health centres in Scotland’s cities.

The app will aim to extend the charity’s outreach to more people working in their own homes, for example, with basic safety information and further details about one-to-one support services, “providing specialist support in areas that previously had no services available,” according to Sarco’s website. 

The project received £1,092,194 in funding from the UK government’s recently-introduced “tampon tax”, which distributes VAT proceeds from sanitary products among a variety of UK-based women’s charities.

But in sex worker Carly Bell’s letter to the Scottish newspaper The National, she wrote that the investment was “less to do with a desire to help sex workers, and more to do with a desire to gather data around our lives”.

“£1m is a life-changing amount of money that could be used for so much good amongst people involved in my industry. To see it spent on an app is maddening when I know so many people for whom even a slice of that money could radically change their lives, and even lead them into alternative employment,” she wrote.

Opposing views

Bell added that Sacro’s service to help sex workers, Another Way, runs in “complete contrast” to what many sex worker-led organisations believe is the right way to help vulnerable people working in these communities – “to decriminalise sex work and end abuse towards sex workers from police and immigration enforcement.”

Such support organisations led by sex workers – including Scot-Pep and Umbrella Lane – have also said that they weren’t consulted throughout the design process of the app.

Dr Anastacia Ryan, CEO of Umbrella Lane in Glasgow, said in a statement: “Given the exclusion of Umbrella Lane from discussions on the development of this app that has been awarded a significant amount of funding, we are highly concerned as to the real intentions behind this project, particularly in light of cuts to wider service provision for sex workers and a decrease in sex worker engagement.”

“Many services hold views that all sex work is commercial sexual exploitation; a political stance that prioritises exiting of women over a harm reduction approach,” she added.

“Little more than a data-gathering process”

However, Aaron Slater, service manager at Sacro, said: “Sacro’s online presence will be designed to complement existing harm reduction services and a key consideration in the development of [the app] will be ensuring that personal data isn’t gathered so women can be confident of accessing the resource completely anonymously.”

Bell addressed these data protection promises in her letter, saying: “It is no secret that the Home Office get frustrated that data around sex workers is so tightly protected amongst our allies in the service provision area, NHS services and academia, and I certainly worry that this move to push an app out to sex workers is little more than a data-gathering process.”

“I think it is ludicrous that the government is willing to spend £1m on an app, but refuse to fund sex-worker-rights organisations led by actual sex workers. […] I struggle to not foresee that data being used in the push to change legislation in a way that will negatively impact on us as sex workers.”

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