“Has anyone used Sonder to book rooms?” began one post on an online discussion forum. “They have good prices and contactless check in. Thanks!”
“They do background checks and use facial recognition, and they’ve canceled the room last minute and banned multiple SW,” reads the top-voted reply.
“SW” is the forum’s abbreviation for “Sex Worker”, the class of laborer to which the forum is dedicated. It’s an online space in which sex workers of various stripes can consult each other anonymously for advice, vent about annoying clients, and otherwise engage in discussion about the world’s oldest profession.
Sonder, meanwhile, is a tech-focused hotel startup. Sonder seeks to offer ‘hotel amenities without hotel formality’, as the company describes its mission on its website. For sex workers, it offers much the same kind of temporary workspace as those found on Airbnb, and a similar lack of scrutiny – or at least it used to.
Millions in Funding, and a New KYC Tool
One post to the SW forum from about a year ago described the Sonder experience as “perfect… Rates were always lower than hotels, mostly private self check in (the place in Philly had a front desk person), amenities and kitchens.”
Another poster seconded the endorsement: “Co-signing Sonder! I went to Philly and had a place that didn’t have a front desk person, only a key code to get in, and I was a 15 min walk from financial district. I did 2 nights and it was about 300 total. I think I saw cleaning staff in the hallways twice throughout my stay.”
But things have changed since then, as indicated in the warning post about “facial recognition,” dated about seven months ago. Near the start of this year, Sonder completed a reverse merger with the Special Purpose Acquisition Company Gores Metropoulos II, a corporate maneuver that turned Sonder into a publicly listed firm and infused the company with hundreds of millions in investment funding.
It isn’t clear whether the funding – or perhaps even guidance from advisors connected to Gores Metropoulos II – had any influence in Sonder’s adoption of new technologies. But it is clear from regulatory filings with the SEC, which Sonder was now required to make as a public company, that by May of this year Sonder was using “facial geometry data to verify that a guest’s selfie picture matches the photograph on the government-issued identification provided by the guest, similar to a front desk worker at a traditional hotel visually comparing a guest’s government identification to the guest’s face.”
Indeed, the company probably started using the technology much earlier. Sonder’s website has a page dedicated to its “biometric privacy notice”, last updated in late February, 2022. The page explains that Sonder works with two different vendors for its ‘face geometry’ tech – Persona and Chekin. The only differentiation between the two listed on Sonder’s privacy notice is that Persona “deletes your Biometric Data immediately after your ID has been verified,” whereas Chekin deletes such data “two weeks after your ID has been verified.”
As for why Sonder is using this technology to verify guests, the company offers two reasons. One is “to ensure their safety and the safety of others and to prevent fraud.” Another is that certain jurisdictions require Sonder “to collect a photo of a government-issued ID to comply with rules applicable to hospitality service providers.”
A third and unenumerated reason, however, could be to prevent sex workers from using Sonder’s facilities – a motivation that likely has more to do with reputability than ensuring guest safety and fighting fraud.
The Unspoken Use Case
Sonder’s reticence on this issue is not unusual. Of all publicly traded hotel companies, only one has explicitly named ‘prostitution’ in the required “Risk Factors” section of its filings with the Securities Exchange Commission so far this year. [Atour Lifestyle Holdings notes “inherent risks of accidents, injuries or prohibited activities (such as illegal drug use, gambling, violence or prostitution by guests) taking place in hotels.”] Nevertheless, hotels clearly frown upon the use of their facilities for such purposes, and sex workers know this only too well.
One popular post on the sex worker forum earlier this year complained, “My hotel for this weekend just emailed me saying they’re cancelling my reservation due to suspicion of using the room for commercial purposes. How did they find out???”
The poster, who identifies as an escort, follows up with some research.
“There are companies that offer automation products to the hospitality industry to do just this, to weed out ‘problematic guests’ and ‘maintain regulatory compliance’. In their TOS you also agree to allow them to share your image, phone number AND device ID. Makes me wonder if they are using facial recognition…”
Replying to the same post, another escort calls out Sonder in particular. “I know another provider who was recently banned from them after they made her upload a selfie to ‘verify’. So yes, they’re using facial recognition on us”.
The sex workers appear to be correct, and yet it may be that the taboo around this subject is so strong as to prevent any explicit discussion about this particular use case by the companies themselves. Neither Persona nor Chekin – the facial recognition vendors working with Sonder – make any mention of their tools’ utility in identifying sex workers, nor does this use case ever come up from high-profile vendors like NEC as they seek to expand into the hospitality sector.
Hotel companies, meanwhile, won’t broach the topic of sex work at all, let alone a discussion about the tools they may or may not use to prevent its occurrence on their properties.
But with selfie-based identity verification seeing increasing adoption in this sector, the technology’s impact on sex workers and their underground industry will only become more profound. Their discussions about it, like those among the hotel administrators contracting the technology and the vendors providing it, nevertheless remains private, hushed, a matter to be kept out of the public eye – like the work itself.
November 30, 2022 – by Alex Perala