Google Makes Chrome Update After Study Reveals It Tracks Visits To Porn Sites — Even On Incognito Mode

(Photo: PornHub/ Shutterstock)

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  • Over 90% of porn websites leak personal user data to tech giants like Facebook and Google, even when users watch in “Incognito Mode,” according to a July study.
  • Google announced an update to Chrome Thursday that will close a “loophole” companies use to know when people are browsing in incognito.
  • A researcher who conducted the study told the DCNF that the changes made to Chrome are “meant to hide the fact that a visitor hide the fact that a visitor has incognito enabled can still be tracked by many companies, including Google.”

Google announced changes to its web browser Chrome Thursday after a study found that 93% of porn sites leak user data to major tech companies.

Researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Melon University and the University of Pennsylvania concluded in the study released Monday that porn sites “leak data through third-party requests to a large and concerning extent,” even when users are in “Incognito Mode.” (RELATED: Porn Is An Environmental Hazard, Produces As Much CO2 As 72 Countries Combined)

Google’s update will close a “loophole” that allowed sites to track users who visited in incognito “at the end of July,” according to a blog post Thursday from Google partner development manager Barb Palser. But researcher Timothy Libert of Carnegie Melon told the Daily Caller News Foundation the announcement is just a cover.

Incognito mode/ by Sam Kresslein/ Shuttertsock

Incognito Mode/ by Sam Kresslein/ Shuttertsock

“The changes are meant to hide the fact that a visitor has incognito enabled but users can still be tracked by many companies, including Google,” Libert told the DCNF. Using Incognito Mode ensures that user data is not stored on a computer but does not make user data completely untraceable when they visit certain websites, his study explains.

“Overall, these changes offer few tangible benefits compared to prior versions of Chrome and do not address the core risks identified by our research,” he continued.

Google’s blog post said, “People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons. Some wish to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or to exclude certain activities from their browsing histories. … People may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity.”

Libert’s study, which scanned 22,484 pornography websites, found that Google had trackers on 74% of those sites while Facebook had trackers on 10%. (RELATED: Inside Google’s Microaggressions Newsletter: Pronoun Problems, Soy Police, And A Deaf Person Told To Watch Her ‘Tone’)

This kind of user data can reveal “gender/sexual identities or interests” through the URLs visited by users, which “poses an additional risk if tracked and assumptions about users’ sexual identities/interests are linked to personal identifying information,” the study notes.

Google’s “Policy for Content Posted by Users on Search” says, “We don’t allow content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material.”

YouTube — a Google company — does not allow sexually explicit videos (“text, image, audio, or video of graphic sexual acts intended to arouse,” as Google explains) to be uploaded to its platform. But the search engine does not restrict porn sites from using its analytics tools. Therefore, Google can “observe” the porn websites that users visit, according to the study.

“We prohibit personalized advertising and advertising profiles based on a user’s sexual interests or related activities online,” a Google spokeswoman wrote in a statement to New York Times opinion writer and former BuzzFeed tech reporter Charlie Warzel.

“Additionally, tags for our ad services are never allowed to transmit personally identifiable information to Google,” the statement continued.

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

“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,” Maris told Warzel. “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.”

The study also notes that the 3,856 porn site privacy polices they were able to extract for the study “were written such that one might need a two-year college education to understand them.”

Google and Facebook did not respond for comment in time for publication.

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