Your Favorite Porn Site Might Be Watching You Fap, Even If You’re In Incognito Mode
Yesterday VICE’s Motherboard published a surreal, Orwellian post about how porn sites track user data around the web. Basically, you’re leaving digital breadcrumbs about your private porn viewing habits on some of the biggest websites in the world, like Google and Facebook. Motherboard discovered that “88 percent of the top 500 porn sites have tracking elements installed,” which means that you’re leaving digital footprints every time you visit your favorite porn site:
“If you are watching porn online in 2015, even in incognito mode, you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be publicly released and attached to your name,” Thomas proclaimed in a blog post titled “Online Porn Could Be the Next Big Privacy Scandal,” shortly after.
Thomas’s case went something like this: Your browser (Chrome, Safari, whatever) has a very unique configuration, and it broadcasts all sorts of information that can be used to identify you as you click around the web. You’re basically leaving “footprints,” as Thomas calls them (others prefer “fingerprints”), all over the webpages you visit. Thus, it’s a matter of linking one footprint to another—an expert could spot the same prints on Facebook and NYTimes.com as on Pornhub and XVideos.
Thomas argued that “almost every traditional website that you visit saves enough data to link your user account to your browser fingerprint, either directly or via third parties.” He’s definitely right that most web pages you visit (certainly not just porn sites) have installed tracking elements that send your data to third-party corporations, probably without your knowledge. Many, for instance, run Google Analytics, which companies use to monitor traffic to the website. Others have social media “share” buttons and third-party ad networks built in.
So, for example, when you click on “Leather Fetish #3” on XNXX, you’re not just sending a request to the porn site—a so-called first-party request. You’re sending third-party requests to Google, to the web-tracking company AddThis, and to a company called Pornvertising, too, even if you’re browsing in private mode. You’re also sending other data that can be used to identify your computer, like your IP address.
If you understand how the Internet economy works, cookie and tracking-based privacy concerns *probably* aren’t a dealbreaker to stop your porn habits. As much as you might love or hate the fact these tracking tool exist on the Internet, they’re just a fact of life for websites looking to monetize to brands.
But what happens when info about a person’s porn habits gets into nefarious hands? What are the personal and societal implications of porn tracking? The fear is that it will be used as a weapon against individuals to humiliate and undermine an individual offline, destroying relationships, public reputations, and careers:
All that, paired with the continued rise of casual hacking, Thomas says, means that a complete catalog of your personal porn habits is perennially on the verge of being leaked to the public. Thomas believes that it’s not only possible but likely that a hacker will whip up a database that can share your porn-viewing history with the entire internet.
This, of course, has any number of damaging implications, even beyond the potential humiliation for an outed porn watcher—if you think erasing your internet history wipes out the record of those food-fetish vids or CGI beast porn, think again. Worse, there are still plenty of places around the world where individuals are persecuted for their sexual orientation. A revelation that someone in an oppressive country watched a series of gay porn videos could put that person at serious risk.
Those implications are pretty terrifying if you’re in a country that doesn’t love life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as much as we do here in America. But hell, who knows — maybe a group of cyber thugs would try to “expose” a senator’s fondness for Alexis Texas in a dirty political smear campaign.
Pornhub was the only company to call the tracking allegations false to Motherboard:
Pornhub was the only porn site that returned a request for comment. They issued me a statement calling Thomas’s conclusions “not only completely false, but also dangerously misleading.” In their lengthy, compelling rebuttal, Pornhub pointed out the vast amount of server space they would need to store users’ viewing histories—they get 300 million requests a day, and they estimate that storing all of that would require 3,600 terabytes of space. Not to mention that sifting through all of it would be nearly impossible and maddeningly time-consuming. “Pornhub’s raw server logs contain only the IP and the user agent for a very limited time, never a browser footprint,” a Pornhub spokesperson wrote me in an email.
And what about browsing in Chrome’s Incognito mode? Psssh. It might make you feel good, but it’s pretty much worthless.
Another important point, he said, is that incognito mode does “virtually zero to stop this tracking, and at best your address bar won’t auto-complete to something embarrassing, but advertisers and data brokers still get the information. I have no idea what, if anything, they do with it—but it’s all sitting in a database somewhere.”
Does any of this worry you? Time to bring back adult XXX movie theaters? Or, gasp, start paying for your jollys?
Go read the full thing over at VICE’s Motherboard… It’s a tremendous article that will have you thinking twice before going into Incognito mode.
Woman in bed relaxing pic via Shutterstock