We have been active, of late, calling attention to the business end of the porn world. Over the weekend, news arrived that a trove of data from a Spanish “camgirl” website tying user data to usernames had been made public. This was hardly the first data breach in the industry.
Some may read that news and and shrug. “So what?”, they may say. “Why should I care if my porn site browsing data is out there?”
Viewed in isolation, that might be a semi-reasonable perspective. The world is awash in data, after all. How are a few more bits and bytes floating around in the ether going to hurt you?
Here's how. Data collected about your movements on a porn site doesn’t exist in isolation, but rather alongside the vast amounts of data your other, non-porn internet and internet-of-things (“IOT”) activities generate. Data aggregators collect as much of that data as possible from as many sources as will provide it. They package that data into detailed profiles of you for sale to advertisers or, really, anyone who wants to buy it.
These profiles are very specific. They include information about your usernames (which, let’s face it, often identify you), age, race, religion, gender, income, credit profile, residential address, occupation, employer, buying habits, and marital and family status. They track the devices you own and use to access the internet, and the apps you use to communicate with friends. They identify physical locations you frequently visit by tagging your activities with GPS coordinates. Depending on what was contained in that user agreement you “Accepted” without ever having read it when you installed a new app or set up an IOT device, a tech company might have the ability and (worse) the legal right to read your texts and listen to your conversations.
So, not to be all apocalyptic, but it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with myriad ways a bad actor with your porn site browsing data – who also acquires all of the other information available about you that’s for sale – could compromise your life. We’ve yet to see some of the scenarios below bubble up to the surface in news reports (although there are scams that mimic them), but that doesn’t they don’t (or won’t) happen.
The Blackmail Scenario
Say you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or questioning but have not yet come out to your friends, family, and colleagues, many of whom you worry would not accept you. You live in a state that doesn’t have robust anti-discrimination protections for sexual minorities, and work at a job where revealing your sexual identity would likely subject you to abuse from coworkers.
For now, the internet has served as your principal mode of expressing and exploring your sexuality. Sure, your porn consumption habits make clear your sexual preference, but by-and-large it feels anonymous and safe to live that part of your life online, for now at least.
Then, one day, you receive an anonymous communication from someone threatening to “out” you if you don’t pay a ransom in Bitcoin. The anonymous blackmailer knows where you live and work, and can recite to you not just the porn sites you’ve visited, but what videos you watched, and for how long, and how many times.
Think you might pay to keep that information secret?
The Messy Divorce Scenario
Say you and your wife are going through an angry divorce. You have a daughter together. You want shared custody. Your wife wants sole custody. The family court is going to have to weigh your and your wife’s fitness as parents.
The data collected by a porn site you have visited includes information about from where and how long you’ve browsed, and what, specifically, you’ve watched. You aren’t proud of it, but once or twice while at home late at night you’ve browsed the “Incest Porn” category, where adult performers act out “daddy/daughter” scenarios. It’s one of the porn site’s most popular genres.
Think that information would be useful to your spouse’s lawyer if, say, someone offered it to your spouse for a few hundred bucks?
The Cyber-Stalking Scenario
You are young and single, living alone in a new city where you don’t know many people yet. One night, on a lark and after a few glasses of wine, you go to a “cam” site where you have a “cybersex” encounter with a performer in exchange for “tokens” you purchased on the site with your credit card. You don’t show your face, but the performer (and anyone else with access to the video stream) can see your body and features of your bedroom, including the open jewelry box you keep on the nightstand by your bed. In an unguarded moment you tell the performer about living alone.
You enjoyed yourself on the site. You might even go back. But the credit card information you supplied when you bought tokens identifies you by name. It’s a snap to tie that information to a physical address. And now you’ve given someone an easy way to know when you are at home. Alone. In bed. And that you have nice jewelry.
Think you might have put yourself in danger?
The Employer Surveillance Scenario
You used your work device to surf porn while on a business trip. It was a stupid thing to do, you immediately regretted it, and you cleared your browser history immediately afterwards. No worries, right?
Well, maybe not. A third-party web marketing company that contracts with the website you visited installed a tracking applet on your device when you clicked “OK” to enter the site. While you roamed the porn site, the third-party applet collected unique identifying information about your device, down to its serial number. Unbeknownst to you, the marketing company sells that information to a cybersecurity firm your employer pays to monitor the use of devices it gives to employees.
Think you have “no worries” now?
The Manipulation-for-Profit Scenario
You enjoy watching porn videos showing performers using sex toys. That’s not something you’ve ever tried in real life, but maybe one day.
The porn site notices your preference for sex toy-related content. Every time you return to the site, its algorithm puts sex toy videos in the exact location on your browser screen where it knows, from tracking you, that you will navigate your pointer when you arrive at the site. You don’t even realize it, but you are being fed content that appeals to you in a manner precisely calculated – down to the square inch of screen-space – to match your browsing behavior. Maybe that creeps you out. Maybe it doesn’t.
But here’s something else. The porn site has an advertising deal with a specific brand of sex toys. All of the videos pushed to you feature that brand. It’s a subtle thing. The videos don’t identify themselves as ads. You don’t even see any brand logos on the toys. But then one day the exact same toy you just watched someone use in a video you “favorited” shows up in a banner ad on the side of the page. 20% off! Maybe it’s time to give that toy a whirl.
Think your deepest desires have just been harnessed to sell you something?
Look, here’s the bottom line, as paranoid as it might sound. When you watch porn, porn watches you, too. In fact, that’s the whole point. Porn site operators make money by knowing (or having the ability to know) exactly who you are and what stimulates your deepest urges. In exchange, they push content to you for “free,” assuming you’re cool with having zero control over who sees the information they have about you and how that information gets used.
To assume an online, porn-related breach of privacy that damages your life would never happen to you is to have faith that everyone you encounter on the internet has the best of intentions.
Think that’s actually true?
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.