Thomas, who lives in San Francisco, recently found himself at a bar, chatting with a member of the online adult-entertainment industry. They got to talking about economics, naturally. While the porn professional insisted that collecting and selling the personal data of users who visited erotic websites wasn’t part of the industry’s business model, Thomas wasn’t convinced.
“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.
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.