Facebook and Google could be tracking you on porn sites

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Tech giants Google and Facebook could be logging your porn-viewing habits through the use of trackers on adult sites.

A scan of 22,484 pornography websites by a team of researchers found that 93 percent of those sites contained trackers that sent data to numerous third-party domains.

The researchers, comprised of individuals from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pennsylvania, said most of those trackers came in the form of cookies as well as invisible embedded pixels. The team also noted that 74 percent of the porn sites scanned contained trackers from Google while 10 percent were found to have Facebook’s trackers.

Dr. Elena Maris, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft, told the New York Times that the findings were worrisome given the sensitivity of the data.

“These porn sites need to think more about the data that they hold and how it’s just as sensitive as something like health information,” Dr. Maris said. “Protecting this data is crucial to the safety of its visitors. And what we’ve seen suggests that these websites and platforms might not have thought all of this through like they should have.”

To make matters worse, only 17 percent of the sites scanned were encrypted, increasing the chances that user data could be exposed. And your browser’s incognito mode, which merely keeps your browsing history from being saved, won’t protect you.

The researchers’ discovery is even more interesting due to the fact that Facebook and Google-owned YouTube both ban porn videos from their platforms. So what exactly is being done with this data?

As noted by the Times, both Facebook and Google have denied that any information that could be collected by their trackers on porn sites “was used for creating marketing profiles intended to advertise to individuals.”

“We don’t allow Google Ads on websites with adult content and we prohibit personalized advertising and advertising profiles based on a user’s sexual interests or related activities online,” a Google spokeswoman said. “Additionally, tags for our ad services are never allowed to transmit personally identifiable information to Google.”

Facebook provided a similar response as well, going so far as to state that it would take action against any adult site using its trackers, a violation of its community guidelines.

The research team hopes that internet users will become more aware of the ways they can be tracked across the web.

“The fact that the mechanism for adult site tracking is so similar to, say, online retail should be a huge red flag,” Dr. Maris added. “This isn’t picking out a sweater and seeing it follow you across the web. This is so much more specific and deeply personal.”

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Mikael Thalen

Mikael Thalen

Mikael Thalen is a tech and security reporter based in Seattle, covering social media, data breaches, hackers, and more.