Every time you visit a website, you’re leaving bigger footprints than you realize…

Author’s Note: I know Men’s Health has to stick “porn” in their title to get people interested (le sigh…), but this piece is about much bigger and more general issues.

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It’s happened to everyone—an ad for whatever you were just shopping for on Amazon pops up in a sidebar on your Facebook page. You get a promoted tweet for a local business in a town three states away that you’re visiting for the weekend. How does the Internet know so much about you?

In 2015, it’s no secret that everyone from mega-retailers to non-profits are mining your data and browsing history. And that includes websites featuring sexual content, e.g. porn, live web cams, and more. When you visit, they save just enough data to link your user account to your “browser fingerprint,” either directly or via third parties. In a world where sexual discrimination and shame are still very real, it’s enough to make you wonder what sort of profile your online sex life is generating. And with data hacks and security breaches making headlines fairly regularly, will your virtual sexual history eventually be released to the public?

I spoke to Michelle De Mooy, Deputy Director of Consumer Privacy for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), an organization that advocates for online civil liberties and human rights, to better understand what’s going on. And, most importantly, what we should (and shouldn’t) be worried about.

“Data leakage is both a privacy and a security issue,” De Mooy explained. “Most often, websites get hacked for things like credit card information and, increasingly, social security numbers. But it is possible that embarrassing or compromising information could be leaked after a hack.”

She continued, “It’s possible for a website to have a security breach while protecting user identities. It depends on the data practices of the company, often how the data is stored—identifiable data can be separated from non-identifiable data so if the information is hacked, it can’t be traced back to an individual user.”

The real issue though, according to De Mooy, is not so much about security breaches. It’s with tracking elements, which are rampant online.

Most webmasters use third party tracking tools, like Google Analytics, to increase their traffic and the functionality of their site. This information is what the third party service provider, not the site itself, shares, often without users’ knowledge or consent.

Put simply, in exchange for webmasters getting to use their free tool, the service provider—Google, in the case of Google Analytics—has access to any data that’s been gathered with it. This information can then be sold to data brokers or others as the service provider sees fit.

So it’s not that the websites you’re visiting are selling your information. It’s that the tools that many use to help enhance their sites have the ability to sell or otherwise distribute your information, if they want to.

In our rapidly changing yet still rather sex-phobic world, this sort of thing seems extra stress-inducing.

I reached out to six different online sex-related service providers—everything from live web-cam sites to hook-up directories—and asked exactly how they gather and use visitor information. Each talked about the importance of privacy, security, and not brokering information, but each also mentioned that they used third-party analytics tools to “enhance users’ experiences.”

Given the sensitive nature of sex-related data, I don’t think anyone was lying to me. These providers seemed genuinely interested in protecting their users. But what’s to stop a security breach on the third-party level?

The answer, from what I can tell, is nothing. There is no way to stop Google, for example, from selling your masturbation stimulation history, if they wanted to. Just like there’s no way to stop them from brokering data from any other site you visited online.

This isn’t like credit card information being compromised. It’s about shame. We’d be mortified if the time clock from our most recent cam-to-cam live session was released to the public. Nothing financial is lost, but somehow it feels more damaging, more invasive.

A sex-related data breach isn’t more anxiety-inducing because it’s more likely. It’s more terrifying because of the hypocrisy, judgment, and shame associated with sexuality and sexual behavior. We are dependent on the Internet for an endless array of services that, according to De Mooy, are all essentially equally accessible. But what we do to each other as a culture, once we see where others may stand with their sex-related tastes or proclivities—that’s what’s truly chilling.


pictured: can see you!! image via Men’s Health

Reprinted from MensHealth.com (4/16/15)

And ICYMI, you can read all my work featured on Men’s Health dot com right –> here

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