Forever a Pornstar, Software Says

Jørgen Tresse
TIK MA student

Judging by any benchmark, Julie is a normal teenager in school. During the course of one day, a series of unfortunate events left her social and private life in ruins. These events also led to her transferring schools and suffering from severe psychological trauma. What happened?

I made up the previous paragraph, but it is nonetheless based on true stories. Unfortunately, this is something that does happen.

It should come as no surprise that teenagers engage in sexual activities. However, in the twenty-first century, these intimate activities are not necessarily acts that stay exclusive only to the people involved. With the advent of social media and an increasing norm of sharing all the details of your life on the Internet, acts that may have been poorly thought through – or at the very least meant solely to be private – can be filmed or photographed and shared with hundreds of people within minutes. As Aftenposten has shed light on through a series of articles in the fall of 2017, it is not uncommon that youths share photographs and videos of sexual activities involving their peers. It even seems to be happening regularly, and involves a wide variety of young people. A common thread is that the persons exposed — often young girls pressured into an act — are unaware of this sharing. It is also striking how the common reactions boys and girls receive are as opposite as can possibly be: their peers praise the boy as a man, while labeling the girl a slut. The photo or video in question can be shared with the whole school within a day, and can even spread further, possibly ruining a person’s social life through crowd judgement in the process.

There are popular porn niches devoted to material where you know the identities of the persons engaging in sexual acts. The allure of recognising an actress is not lost on the Internet, with finding out the identity of people in pornographic videos or gifs being a hobby and skill several people pride themselves on. For example, you can find communities on the social and media aggregation website Reddit where users help each other to determine the name of an actress from a specific pornographic clip, or services like where you can reverse image search porn stars. Recently, Pornhub – as of October 2017 ranked the 20th most visited Internet site in the US – announced that they are piloting an AI-based software that identifies specific porn actresses in clips. This is supposedly so that users can more easily find their favourite actresses and fetishes, and Pornhub claims that they will only use the software on professional actresses. However, as several privacy enthusiasts have pointed out, these new features should be worrying.

Teenagers sharing videos and pictures of each other is devastating for those involved, but unfortunately it is far from the only non-consensual sharing occurring. “Revenge porn” is a category of porn where jilted exes share intimate and private content without their previous partner’s consent, and with the intent of shaming or hurting them in some way. This does not just affect an unlucky few – some surveys have revealed that as many as 23% of respondents, overwhelmingly women, have experienced being the victim of revenge porn, with pictures and videos being spread on an estimated 2,000 websites worldwide dedicated to this genre. Often, this is accompanied by doxxing, or the release of private information such as full name, address, telephone number and more, opening the door for widespread abuse. While there are efforts underway to limit the damage from incidents like these — Twitter, for example, is banning profiles which engage in these activities, and the American Congress is considering making doxxing a federal offence — it is easy to see how software such as Pornhub’s may exacerbate the problem.

It is common that a technology which is developed for a certain use, gets applied in other areas or by actors with other needs. Viagra, for example, was originally intended as a heart medicine, Listerine as a cure for gonorrhea, and the Frisbee was a pie container, but none of these uses are what they are best known for. Serendipitous discoveries happen a lot in the fields of science and technology, but one does not always stumble upon a new use; actors with malicious intent can actively search for ways to warp a technology to fit their needs.

If the facial recognition AI is used on private videos as discussed here, it can connect those videos to a person’s full digital profile, making personal information all the more accessible. Aftenposten focused on youth culture where actions have led to the courtroom, but for Julie, the girl who had to transfer schools, this may be a small consolation. Starting over somewhere new or waiting until content is forgotten, is hard enough as it is, without making the content easier to find and tagging it to a person so that it can follow them through their whole life.

Common sense tells us that anything shared on the Internet is on the Internet forever. The least we can hope for is privacy through hiding in the massive overflow of content that is out there.

Photo: © Andrii Zastrozhnov/Adobe Stock