Day 6

Porn-o-nomics: Who is watching you watch porn?

Online pornography is ubiquitous, instantly available and often free. In Episode 3 of our series on the economics of porn, we look at the information being collected about people as they watch online pornography, where it goes, and why the industry isn't so keen on trying to monetize it.
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If you're watching pornography online in 2017 — even with a private browser — you are being watched.

Adult entertainment sites are some of the most visited on the web, but as Mike Stabile tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, many of them lack the basic security features used to keep your personal habits private.

"For a lot of us, we didn't realize how much information was being shared," he says.

Stabile is a documentary filmmaker and the communications director with the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association of the adult entertainment industry.

Like other industries, producers and distributors of pornography carefully monitor web traffic to find new and better ways of turning data into dollars. Where tube sites are involved, that means following a Netflix-type model.

Mike Stabile is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has written about and advocated for sex workers and sexual speech for over a decade. (Free Speech Coalition)
"In the modern porn industry, companies decide what they're going to make based on what the viewers are watching," he says.  

"A lot of tube sites are producing their own content and it helps guide what types of movies they're going to make, what themes and genres are more popular that year and how best to reach their customers,"  says Stabile.

Most people closely guard their porn use, but knowing that their porn site of choice knows what they prefer is likely no surprise. But the snooping and scooping of data doesn't stop there.

       

How are we being tracked

Franziska Roesner, assistant professor at the University of Washington, says the story of tracking starts with how the web was designed in the early days.

"Web designers had to figure out a way for websites to remember things about the users that visit them. What they did to enable that was create something called a cookie, basically a little bit of information stored in your browser associated with specific websites," she says.

Roesner gives the example of visiting a site like CNN.com and explains that your browser isn't only talking to CNN, it's also talking to a bunch of other entities called third parties, or advertisers that hitch a ride on your browsing habits.

"What happens when multiple websites use the same advertisers, is that those third parties will be able to track you," she says. "Over time, those advertisers can building up a browsing profile for you."



According to Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, that's tame compared to other tracking techniques that are in play now.

"Servers are starting to do what's called fingerprinting. Instead of putting signals on your browser, it looks at the signals your computer sends and tries to uniquely identify you," he says.

He gives the use of fonts as an example.

"We all put weird fonts on our computers and the lists of fonts you've installed can be highly identifying, much like a social security number or government identifier."

Even if you're in incognito mode, they can tell where you went."- Joseph Hall, Center for Democracy and Technology

Most people closely guard their porn use, which can mean watching with a private browsing function turned on. Hall says that won't help you.

"When you turn on private browsing mode and go to a porn site, it makes sure that all the information in your browser from that session is gone. But let's say you're at a hotel, or an airport, or anywhere with public Wifi, anyone around you can sniff your traffic," he says.

"Even if you're in incognito mode, they can tell where you went."

  
The push for privacy

The push to secure adult sites got a boost when a recent Google transparency report illustrated how pornography sites lacked adequate security protocol. That's when Hall's and Stabile's paths crossed.

Last October, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) teamed up with the Free Speech Coalition (FSC) to help porn sites secure their web traffic.

"We immediately sat down with [CDT] and said what can we do and how can we bring people on board," says Stabile.

The solution, at least for now, is HTTPS or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure.  With HTTPS , data is sent between your browser and the website is encrypted.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall is the Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington. (Center for Democracy and Technology)
It represents a significant upgrade to a site's security but Stabile says it was met with hesitation when FSC took it to some of its members.

"The majority of sites are small mom and pop sites.  They are individual performers producing stuff. When we started talking about this, the immediate reaction was — we don't have the capacity to do that, we're just a small site — but once we started talking about the vulnerabilities, there was tremendous interest."
 

The cost of privacy

Without the necessary precautions, the data collected from porn viewers is vulnerable and that's a major issue for the FSC/CDT partnership.  

Stabile says the adult entertainment industry is different from other mainstream media because it's so highly personal and often secret or closeted.

"It could be an LGBTQ individual or someone who is into a particular fetish or curious about a different sexuality," Stabile says and points to the hack of Ashley Madison as an example of what could happen without protection.

 "If you're a homosexual man and people find out, you could be killed by vigilantes."- Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology

Ashley Madison helps people interested in extramarital affairs. In August 2015, it had sensitive material pilfered from its website.

"That is minor compared to what could happen if someone's database was broken into on some BDSM site or something like that where there is a lot of misinformation and a lot of closets and shame," says Stabile.

"It could mean being thrown out of your family or outed as gay or having your marriage breakup or the possible loss of a job, particularly if you are a teacher."

Hall says it gets worse in other parts of the world.

"There are countries, notably Indonesia and Singapore, where certain kinds of same-sex sexual activities are patently illegal. And we know certain places in West Africa, if you're a homosexual man and people find out, you could be killed by vigilantes."

A protestor holds a banner during a demonstration against homosexuality in Dakar in 2015. Under Senegalese law, anyone convicted of an "improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex" faces up to five years in jail. (SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

 

The danger to the industry

Stabile acknowledges that if people feel that their data isn't safe, they won't go to those sites. 

He says there's tremendous emphasis in tracking clicks and enticing viewers to pay for things like dating sites or pleasure products, but there is reluctance among adult entertainment companies to invest in big data in the same way that mainstream companies do.

"We know consumers are sensitive about what they're seeing. Could you imagine if they went to an adult site and then you went to a mainstream site and suddenly you get a pop up for some form of bondage gear?" Stabile asks.

"Within the industry, we're very sensitive to people's privacy, so while some companies do monetize those visits, we try to keep it siloed, as opposed to selling that data to the highest bidder."

Some companies have expressed interest in exploring the kind of profits big data can bring but monetizing user data is a conundrum for the porn industry. On the whole, the industry doesn't want to give up the data and the buyers aren't exactly lining up, despite the billions of clicks.

"We haven't seen a lot of companies going forward and trying to sell it," he says.

"It may also be that they've tried to sell it and people aren't interested in buying it. By and large, mainstream companies are really hesitant to deal with adult data."