Who's tracking your porn?

Privacy experts warn that advertisers, even the NSA, could be following your visits to adult sites

Published December 12, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

        (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-559861p1.html'>nenetus</a>, <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-84025p1.html'>Mopic</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(nenetus, Mopic via Shutterstock/Salon)

It's a frightening thought: Do advertisers know more about your sexual proclivities than your spouse? That was the implication of a piece last week in the Financial Times. The headline alone was alarming: "Visits to porn sites tracked by hundreds of companies." The piece went on to report that the details of one’s visit to a porn site "could be incorporated into the vast dossiers that internet, advertising and data companies create about individuals, and are used to tailor the ads and content people see."

Just imagine the possibilities: John Doe is into masseur porn -- let's make sure he sees that local spa ad. Jane Doe has watched three bukakke videos in a row. Let's target her with this banner ad for baby wipes! But reporter Emily Steel suggested an even scarier specter: "A credit card company, for instance, could choose not to target ads to a person who frequently visits porn sites, judging them to be a higher risk customer," she wrote. "A gambling operation, meanwhile, could target more ads to people who spend hours visiting adult sites, considering them to have more addictive tendencies."

This set my freedom-loving teeth a'chattering. I started defensively grabbing at my Internet porn like a gun nut would his rifle. But just how real is this threat?

I brought my question to YouPorn. The site was sued in 2010 for exploiting a Javascript flaw to view which other adult sites its users had visited. Corey Price, vice president of Pornhub.com, told me that the Pornhub Network, which includes YouPorn and RedTube, does "not allow third-parties to access our users' activity on the site or their web history." (Which does not mean that Pornhub itself abstains from tracking.) He added, "We have strict privacy policies and would never share or sell their personal data." I contacted several ad tracking companies found on adult websites, but only two responded, both to say that they did not collect personally identifiable information about people's porn habits.

Next up: Evidon, the company that supplied the Financial Times with its data, and which owns Ghostery, a privacy browser add-on. You can imagine my surprise at finding that CEO Scott Meyer actually downplayed the risk of such trackers when it comes to viewing porn. "It’s easy for people to misperceive what’s really going on," he said. "There’s a logical leap that is inaccurate, which is that just because you visit an adult site, all this information is going into some profile that’s being shared." The majority of companies that collect data from porn sites do so "responsibly," he says. "Just because the technology is found on this website does not imply any nefarious intent by any means," says Meyer. It's possible, he says, "but it’s definitely not one that we believe should be causing widespread panic."

I was starting to think the risk was overblown. Then I spoke with Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst for Abine, which dubs itself "the online privacy company," who disagreed with Meyer's relaxed reading. “Data collection and profiling -- and the sharing or selling of that data -- is a massive problem and a multimillion-dollar industry,” she said. “I've seen enormous misuses of that data, from lost job opportunities to lowered credit scores and credit limits. The fact that trackers are present, and invisible, on porn sites is itself unnerving, and I'm not sure how one person can state with confidence that they're all acting responsibly.”

I soon found that some in the privacy community are skeptical of Evidon’s motives. The company has several million users who have opted to share their Ghostery activity, meaning that the company collects detailed data about those users’ interaction with tracking ads. It then sells that information to companies interested in optimizing their ad tracking. In an interview with the MIT Technology Review, Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford graduate studying Web privacy, argued that Evidon is financially motivated to "maintain positive relationships with intrusive advertising companies.” Evidon denies any conflict of interest.

I asked Mayer if he believed there was reason to worry that one's porn-browsing history could be sold -- say, to a potential employer -- or made public. “I'm not aware of any company intentionally doing either,” he said. “But it's just one rogue employee or data breach away.” The recent revelation that the NSA spied on Muslim "radicals'" porn-viewing habits with the plan of using that information to discredit them makes the threat seem all that more real. “The NSA gets most of its data from private companies. They’re the start of the surveillance supply chain,” said Downey. “It might start with quote-unquote radicals, but it could go to any one of us.”

So should you worry about your porn being tracked? Yes. There is plenty of reason for concern. But remember that ad trackers aren't just on porn sites -- they’re on social networks, financial websites, medical forums, you name it. In fact, an Abine study found that porn sites had fewer trackers than almost any other category of site. As one privacy analyst put it to me, focusing on porn tracking minimizes the problem. What you watch on YouJizz is the very least of it.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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