The UK's new porn filter could lead to 'Ashley Madison'-style hacks

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LONDON — In August 2015, the personal information of tens of millions of users of adult dating site Ashley Madison were leaked online following a now-infamous hack.

The information included everything from personally identifying details to detailed sexual preferences, and led to numerous incidents of public shaming, blackmail schemes, and even suicides.

Now, campaigners are warning that the UK government’s proposed porn filter risks something similar happening all over again.

As part of the Digital Economy Act, websites hosting pornographic and adult content will have to verify the ages of their British users to make sure they’re over 18, reportedly via their credit cards — or the sites could face being banned in the UK.

The move is intended to protect children from being exposed to pornography online, but some fear it could harm users’ privacy, and put their data at risk.

Jim Killock, director of digital liberties advocacy organisation Open Rights Group, warned in a statement: “Age verification could lead to porn companies building databases of the UK’s porn habits, which could be vulnerable to Ashley Madison style hacks. The Government has repeatedly refused to ensure that there is a legal duty for age verification providers to protect the privacy of web users.”

In other words, in verifying the ages of users, adult companies could end up building massive databases of users, which could then be hacked. And because of the sensitive nature of the data — people’s pornography habits — it has the potential to be far more compromising than an “ordinary” hack of a telecoms firm, or games company, or mapping startup.

And it’s not like the adult industry has a pristine track record when it comes to security. There’s the Ashley Madison hack, for a start. And more than 400 million accounts were leaked in a hack of AdultFriendFinder. 800,000 users of porn site Brazzers were exposed in a forum hack in 2016.

Killock added: “Age verification risks failure as it attempts to fix a social problem with technology. In their recent manifestos, all three main political parties called for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools. Sex education would genuinely protect young people, as it would give them information and context.”

In a statement, digital minister Matt Hancock said: “We are taking the next step to put in place the legal requirement for websites with adult content to ensure it is safely behind an age-verification control.

“All this means that while we can enjoy the freedom of the web, the UK will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world.”

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