A team of researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 22,484 pornographic websites using a tool called webXray to identify tracking tools that send data to third parties.
The study concluded that, " tracking is an endemic on pornography websites: as 93% of pages filter user data to a third party".
As it turns out Google and Facebook are keeping a close eye on the porn consumption habits of its users and even the incognito mode cannot save you from their omnipotent gaze, according to the study published in Arvix.
"All websites and applications include a code from other parts that users are generally unaware of," the authors say. "Such 'third party' codes can allow companies to monitor users' actions without their knowledge or consent and build detailed profiles of their habits and interests.”
Using software to analyze third-party tracking scripts, experts discovered that Google's advertising subsidiary DoubleClick had been added on to 74% of all pornography sites. They also discovered tracking software developed by Oracle and Facebook (which notoriously prohibits explicit content on their platform) on 24% and 10% of scanned sites, respectively.
The New York Times asked the companies involved about the use of such data, and both Google and Facebook said they did not use data collected from pornographic sites to create "marketing profiles aimed at advertising people”.
In total, the study identified 230 companies that tracked explicit content on the web. Most of the tracking, however, was done by a small group of companies.
That’s not the worst part yet! Of more than 22,000 of the sites that were analyzed in the research sample, only 17% were encrypted, leaving that data open to piracy and all kinds of infringements. To top it off 49.97% of the links on pornographic websites expose or strongly suggest the identities, sexual orientation and intimate interests of visitors.
"These pornography domains contain words or phrases that would probably be generally understood as an indicator of a particular sexual preference or interest inherent in the content of the site. It may also be assumed that this is linked to the user who accesses that content," the authors explain.
Another notable problem is that most pornography sites lack privacy policies that address the collection of data from third parties. The study found that only 3,856 sites (about 17% of all scanned entries) had such policies in place.
"The policies were written in such a way that one might need a two-year college education to understand them," the authors point out, highlighting the dense legal features found in the privacy terms.
In addition, this information presents a "unique and high risk" as 45% of the pornographic site links surveyed, point to the nature of the pornographic content.
These links could reveal an individual's sexual preferences in a way that could be used against them for instance, in endangering LGBTQ+ people in places where same-sex relationships are illegal.
As written by the authors of the study: "A person is at risk when this data can be accessed without the consent of the users and can therefore be exploited against them. These risks increase for vulnerable populations whose use of porn could be classified as non-normative or contrary to their public life.
Reference: Tracking sex: The implications of widespread sexual dataleakage and tracking on porn websites (Preprint, July 2019) Elena MarisMicroso, Timothy LibertCarnegie Mellon University, Jennifer HenrichsenUniversity of Pennsylvania. Preprint Arxiv.org