Watching porn in incognito mode is not as private as you think

Ctrl-shift-N: the wondrous keyboard shortcut to start an incognito tab in Google Chrome. You hesitantly type in your odious search, and find the porn site which in that moment you feel a magnetizing attraction to.

You pore over the endless volumes of pornographic videos. Image after image promises to delight the senses. You continue scrolling and clicking until you find the video that will satisfy that seductive and overpowering urge.

Then – once the confidential and intimate act is complete – you sit for a serene moment. Phase three of the operation begins. Like the mafia calling in a “cleaning” crew, you discreetly dispose of the evidence and inspect your surroundings for any witnesses.

You close the incognito tab, the proof of your activities disappearing into the ether of the internet. No one is the wiser. Except – that activity doesn’t really disappear.

It’s easy to see why people would think that history disappears the second you close the window.

“Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see this activity”, explains Google.

That’s the key: other people who use this device can’t see the activity. That doesn’t mean that no one can see the activity, only someone using the incriminating device.

Incognito works in this way: imagine you buy a new phone. You then go on to call and text your friends and family. Then you factory reset your phone.

Your calls and texts won’t appear on your phone, but they will still definitely appear on your friends and family’s phones. Through the factory reset, you have just deleted the information on your phone, nothing else.

Typically, you are signed into your Google account when you perform Google searches. People clear their search history and caches and think this information just disappears.

What most people don’t know is that your activity on Google is logged to something called Google – My Activity. This shows all of your account history, including all your searches and the websites you’ve visited (among other things).

But let’s say you’re smart enough to log out of Google before searching for porn. What most people don’t realize is that portions of pages you’ve loaded are stored as temporary files (or a cache). So now you have to get rid of that, too.

Now for the fun. If you’re super paranoid (like you should be), let’s say you search for porn on your computer, then factory wipe your computer. And you don’t just wipe it once, you wipe it, then use it for another while, then wipe it again, and so forth.

There’s still a trail. Your ISP tracks all the websites you visit, and everything you download or watch. Tracking you straight to your home.

So the way around that, would be to use a VPN (virtual private network). This reroutes your traffic to come from someone else’s server and also to encrypt the information.

Except … the VPN you’re connecting to also tracks what you’re doing, and has evidence of your searches and visited websites. With the right letter from law enforcement, your browsing history could be handed out like free samples at Walmart.

So law enforcement could compromise your porn habits (or almost anything you do) if they have reason to, but at least they’d do it for the greater good of keeping us safe, right? But a few other parties also have access to that information.

Let’s use PornHub as an example. They market themselves as a company which prioritizes your privacy, so they should be squeaky clean, and as a child company of MindGeek which owns over 80% of online porn traffic, they’re a pretty good example.

From the second you hit PornHub’s home page, they slap you with a “Hot Porn Videos in [insert your country]”. For a website that doesn’t track you, it’s funny that they immediately show you that they know exactly where you are.

Now to the trackers. PornHub only has three, which is actually extraordinarily low for a website which is entirely dependent on advertising. For context, YouTube has around 20 on average when you click on a video.

DoublePimp and TrafficJunky are both adult advertising networks, and when you click on a video, you’re not only sending PornHub your request, you’re also sending your information to these advertisers. The network may notice you prefer gay porn, for instance, and tailor your ads based off of this. They’ll get your IP address, your user agent (this is your browser, your location, basic PC details, etc) and some other useful information like how much time you spend on certain videos and what categories you like to go through.

I can’t comment on these networks’ security, but it’s important to know that your browsing habits on porn sites are sent to advertising networks like these.

As for Google Analytics, they capture incredibly specific information about you such as all of the above info, your device, your age, your demographic, your IP address, how fast your internet connection is.

PornHub may not technically track you, but their advertisers and Google can tie all of that information to your personal identity. Even more so, if you’re signed into your Google account on Google Chrome. But we trust Google to never use that information in a troubling way … right?

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