Study Finds Google And Facebook Trackers In Porn Sites

The success of online advertising relies on the ability of advertisers to track the online behavior of their target market. And to do this; they have to clip in several trackers all around the internet to ping back a response that gauges a target customer’s online presence. However, a recent study suggests that these trackers are also present in porn sites that allow massive advertising platforms like Facebook, Google, and Oracle to track people’s pornographic behavior.

The study entitled “Tracking sex: The implications of widespread sexual data leakage and tracking on porn websites” suggests that a massive number of porn sites available on the internet contain ad pixels that can be traced back to the three mentioned above companies. Researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pennsylvania scanned 22,484 porn sites, and they found out that these sites are platforms for Facebook, Google, and Oracles to track people’s porn-viewing.

“Our analysis of 22,484 pornography websites indicated that 93% leak user data to a third party. Tracking on these sites are highly concentrated by a handful of major companies, which we identify. We successfully extracted privacy policies for 3,856 sites, 17% of the total. The policies were written such that one might need a two-year college education to understand them. Our content analysis of the sample’s domains indicated 44.97% of them expose or suggest a specific gender/sexual identity or interest likely to be linked to the user,” the study’s abstract stated.

The study reveals that out of the more than 22 thousand porn sites examined by the researches, 16,638 sites had Google trackers, 5,396 had Oracle trackers, and 2,248 Facebook trackers. Researchers warned that this information leak should be extremely worrying for many users: “The fact that the mechanism for adult site tracking is so similar to, say, online retail should be a huge red flag.”

“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. 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,” said Elena Maris, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft and the study’s lead author.

According to the researchers, people generally think that the websites they visit are owned by one single entity. However, they are not aware that most of the sites on the internet have third parties installing their hidden codes. Such “third-party” code can allow companies to monitor the actions of users without their knowledge or consent and build detailed profiles of their habits and interests. Such profiles are often used for targeted advertising, for example, by showing ads for dog food to dog owners.

And advertising is where platforms like Facebook and Google earns much of its revenue. “Many websites and apps have revenue-sharing agreements with third-party advertising networks and gain direct monetary benefit from including third-party code,” the study suggests.

However, in a statement, a Google spokesperson denied that they allow their advertisers to run ads in sexually explicit websites and porn sites. “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. Additionally, tags for our ad services are never allowed to transmit personally identifiable information to Google.”

Similarly, Facebook also echoed the same statement saying that the company’s ad Community Guidelines does not allow running Facebook trackers on adult websites and pornographic hubs. Facebook’s pixel tracker is, however, can easily be installed on any website, but Facebook claims not to track data collected from pornography websites.

Nonetheless, the researchers said that the results of their study suggest that there are indeed tracking codes in the porn sites they have scanned. Moreover, they said that their results have opened to different implications. Most of these implications revolve around the risk of tracking pornographic behavior as well as to the process of giving out consent to being tracked.

“We identify three core implications of the quantitative results: 1) the unique/elevated risks of porn data leakage versus other types of data, 2) the particular risks/impact for vulnerable populations, and 3) the complications of providing consent for porn site users and the need for affirmative consent in these online sexual interactions,” they concluded.

About the Author

Al Restar
A consumer tech and cybersecurity journalist who does content marketing while daydreaming about having unlimited coffee for life and getting a pet llama. I also own a cybersecurity blog called Zero Day.

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