Sex worker safety app 'Ugly Mugs' may be removed from Android Play Store under new permissions policy


Ugly Mugs, a commonly used safety app for sex workers in Ireland and the UK, is facing removal from the Android Play Store following changes to Google's permissions policy. 

Ugly Mugs allows sex workers to screen incoming calls and text messages from clients, using an alert system to flag potentially dangerous clients based on reports from other sex workers. Sex workers are also able to manually search for telephone numbers in a database to check if they are associated with potentially dangerous clients. The database is used by sex workers in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK and the Channel Islands. 

In October last year Google announced a new policy, limiting which apps could access user's phone and SMS data. The purpose of the policy is to improve security for Android users by making it harder for apps to access phone and SMS data unnecessarily. Due to the changes to Google's permissions policy, Ugly Mugs has been told it must remove the call screening feature from the app, or face removal from the Android Play Store, as the call screening feature was 'determined to be unnecessary or not aligned with the core functionality of [the] app'. Ugly Mugs has applied for an exception to the policy, but were told last week this was not successful. Unless Google reconsiders the decision, Ugly Mugs members will lose access to automatic alerts through the Android app from 3rd March

The Ugly Mugs app is used by hundreds of sex workers every day, raising significant concerns about the impact of its removal on sex workers safety in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Android app currently has over 1,000 installs, and Ugly Mugs reports that the website and mobile apps average roughly 7,000 users every year. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland introduced the 'Nordic Model' for sex work in recent years, which criminalises sex workers' clients. Ugly Mugs and other sex worker-led organisations have reported increased violence against sex workers since the laws came into effect. 

Ugly Mugs suspects Google's decision was made automatically without consideration of the safety implications of losing the app. Sex workers are calling for Google to reconsider the decision