A recent study has found that Google and Facebook are tracking your porn-viewing habits. And it doesn’t help if you switch to incognito mode either.

In an analysis by researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of Pennsylvania, it was found out that out of 22,484 pornographic websites, 93% of them leaked user data to a third party.

Only 17 percent of all 22,484 sites in the research sample were encrypted, which leaves harvested data open to hacking and breaches. Not only that, 49.97 percent of porn site URLs expose or strongly suggest the identities, sexual orientation, and intimate interests of visitors. “The policies were written such that one might need a two-year college education to understand them,” said the study.

The authors used webXray, an open-source software tool, which detects and matches third-party data requests to scan sites. Most of that information (79 percent of websites that transmitted user data) was sent via tracking cookies from outside companies. “Tracking on these sites is highly concentrated by a handful of major companies,” said the researchers who identified 230 different companies and services tracking users in their sample.

Google and Facebook know what you’re up to

Among non-pornography-specific services, Google tracks 74% of pornographic sites, Oracle 24%, and Facebook 10%. Porn-specific trackers in the top 10 are exoClick (40%), JuicyAds (11%), and EroAdvertising (9%).

Elena Maris, a Microsoft researcher who worked on the study, told The New York Times, “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.”

How are your activities being tracked?

To answer this question, the team of researchers created a hypothetical identity “Jack” who decides to view pornographic content on his laptop. As Jack switches to incognito browsing, he believes his actions will remain private. But Jack is unaware that incognito mode only ensures his browsing history is not stored on his computer. The sites he visits, as well as any third-party trackers, may observe and record his online actions. These third-parties may even infer Jack’s sexual interests from the URLs of the sites he accesses. They might also use these interests for marketing or building a consumer profile or sell the data.

The researchers wrote, “The above hypothetical scenario occurs frequently in reality and is indicative of the widespread data leakage and tracking that can occur on porn sites.” Just like Jack, everyone who browses through these porn websites is unaware of all these data transfers that are happening simultaneously.

In 2017, Pornhub, one of the largest porn websites, received 28.5 billion visits, with users performing 50,000 searches per second on the site.

Statistics vary as to the amount of overall porn activity on the internet, but a 2017 report indicated porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, and that “30 percent of all the data transferred across the Internet is porn.”

Statements by Google and Facebook

“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 wrote in a statement. A Facebook spokesperson offered a similar explanation, highlighting the fact that the company’s community guidelines forbid adult websites to use the company’s tracking tools for advertising.

“While the findings of this study are far from encouraging, we do believe regulatory intervention may have positive outcomes,” said the researchers.

How can one browse safely?

Using a VPN might be your best bet. Also consider using ‘do not track’ mode on your browser if it has one or use some add-on to block tracking like Privacy Badger.