Health

Tech giants track porn-viewing habits, study finds

A study by researchers from Microsoft, the University of Pennsylvania, and Carnegie Mellon University has found the vast majority of popular pornographic websites leak data to third parties like Google and Facebook.

Data indicates that pornographic websites account for more monthly visitors than Netflix, Twitter and Amazon combined, making up an estimated 30 per cent of all internet traffic. These researchers took an interest in privacy with regards to porn, given the extremely sensitive and personal nature of porn-consumption data.

They analysed 22,484 porn sites randomly selected from the Alexa ranking of the million most popular websites. Using the webXray platform – which records all network traffic while a page loads – they identified all instances in which user data is exposed to third parties and found that 93 per cent of these sites were leaking data to third parties.

“Tracking on these sites is highly concentrated by a handful of major companies,” the authors wrote in their paper. They identified Google as the most common third party company, with the tech giant and its subsidiaries (such as ad service DoubleClick) having implanted trackers in 74 per cent of the pornography sites in the sample. Software giant Oracle has trackers on 24 per cent of the sites in the sample, and Facebook has trackers on 10 per cent.

Seventy-nine per cent of the sites had a third-party cookie with an average of nine cookies on these sites, and just 17 per cent of the sites were encrypted.

 

The researchers also found that nearly half (45 per cent) of the domains in their sample indicated specific sexual interests, which could potentially embarrass the user through URLs which explicitly mention acts such as bestiality and incest.

While many porn aficionados enter incognito mode in their browser before searching for content, the researchers emphasised that entering this mode only ensures that browsing history is not stored on that device. The researchers also noted that for the websites with readable privacy policies, the policies were written in language that would require a two-year college education to understand.

“Everyone is at risk when such data is accessible without users’ consent, and thus can potentially be leveraged against them by malicious agents acting on moralistic claims of normative gender or sexuality,” the researchers concluded. “These risks are heightened for vulnerable populations whose porn usage might be classified as non-normative or contrary to their public life.

“We argue porn sites currently operate with an unethical definition of sexual consent considering the sensitive sexual data they hold. We contend the overwhelming leakiness and sexual exposure revealed in our results mean porn sites ought to better account for user security as well as adopt policies based on affirmative consent.”

A Google spokesperson told the New York Times that the company does not allow Google Ads on websites featuring adult content, and advertising could not be targeted based on a user’s sexual interests.

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