Every porn user's name and viewing habits could be leaked on the Internet. What could that mean?

Reuters

In 2015, porn use is endemic. In perhaps 20 years, the viewing of pornographic materials has gone from being a secretive habit of the few to the daily routine of the many. Thanks to the explosion of access offered by the Internet, hundreds of millions of people worldwide now view porn regularly. In no small part, this habit has been formed because of the anonymity of porn viewing. But all that might be about to change.

According to one silicon valley programmer, it's perfectly conceivable that hackers could publish details of the pornographic websites anyone has visited. Brett Thomas, a software engineer from San Francisco, explained in a blog post how, thanks to all the hi-tech data gathering programs which work in the background of the apps and websites we use every day, hackers could cross-reference different sets of information to create a list of porn viewing habits and then match them to an individual. This would even be possible when users had been accessing the sites using smartphones, or using private browsing modes.

The last few years have seen a notable rise in the prominence of data hacking, with some high profile examples causing serious embarrassment to governments, celebrities, and in the case of the recent Ashley Madison leak, adulterers. In the scenario painted by Thomas however, hundreds of millions of people could have their porn viewing habits released for all to see, with a strength of information beyond "plausible deniability."

Opinion within the tech industry is conflicted over whether Thomas is on to something. Brian Merchant, a vice.com technology writer, agreed that the theory behind the blog made technical sense, before quoting Cooper Quintin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's staff technologist, who thought the idea was "alarmist." Either way, the original post continues to circulate, causing mild panic wherever it goes.

And that, in itself, may not be such a bad thing. While there are many who see no problem with porn use, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that adult material is far from harmless fun. Both within the church and outside it, porn has become an addiction or habit that people can't seem to break, however much they might want to. The carrot of accountability groups and tools hasn't solved the problem for many; could the stick of fearing exposure stand a better chance of doing so?

Rachel Gardner, founder of Romance Academy, isn't entirely convinced. "Our sexuality is, amongst other things, inherently spatial," she says. "It requires certain spaces to operate in. The online world hasn't just given us the most effective and easily accessible porn delivery system, it's given us a new space to be sexual; a new place to be. Revelations of who watches what when might be enough to stop the most risk-averse among us of clicking the link, but mostly it will add to the normalisation of porn. We might get named and shamed, but so will everyone else. So instead of being the reality check we need, it might be proof that porn is simply part of our new sexuality."

There'd also be some very serious repercussions to such a leak, way beyond embarrassment. For a start, the idea that people's sexual preferences might be publicly leaked in countries where say, homosexuality is illegal, would have unthinkable consequences. And the idea that some kind of searchable database might appear, where prospective employers, friends, husbands, wives and children could look up people's porn browsing history is a gateway to relational carnage.

For some people however, perhaps the mild threat of Scott Thomas' nightmare scenario is going to be a very helpful incentive to give up on porn for good. While that might seem a little morally flawed, the pragmatist in me can't help thinking this very idea could be a game-changer.

At present, porn use is addictive for obvious reasons, but enabled by the sense of anonymity - that as long as you're careful you won't get caught. The huge increase in and normalisation of porn and porn use has progressed unchecked precisely because it's a private pursuit. But what happens when it's not private anymore? For all the loud and proud porn users in the world who claim they wouldn't care what people knew they'd watched, wouldn't a huge number of people take several steps backward? 

According to the stats, Christians, and often their leaders, have been fighting a losing battle against porn for the last few years. Even the threat of the sort of hack suggested by Thomas could be a huge new weapon in that struggle.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders

Lifestyle