Incautious Porn

an anthropological experiment in blackmail and the perception of private/public space online

Salvatore Iaconesi
Apr 25, 2014 · 8 min read

Incautious Porn: an anthropological experiment in blackmail and the perception of private/public space online. What does this mean?

In March 2013 a new company made its entrance in the world market: it was called Incautious Porn.

The company had a very peculiar business model.

Through standard web scraping techniques Incautious Porn used pornographic websites’ content to harvest user comments which included the indication of a phone number, and that were posted in their public sections.

400000 of these comments plus phone numbers were harvested during the first harvesting round, from about 20000 websites.

These comments and phone numbers were used to digitally produce generative paintings, combining the images of the website and the user comment and phone number. These digital paintings could be purchased online on the Incautious Porn website for 50 euros, together with a certificate which included a screenshot of the website from which they were captured.

So, basically, anyone could purchase one of these 400000 paintings with a sexy image, a public user comment and his/her phone number (or someone else’s, depending on the possible cases).

Furthermore, Internet users could use the Incautious Porn website to check if their own phone number was found in our database: a simple form allowed users to indicate their phone number along with their credit card details to process the 10euros payment. Whenever users did so, we added their phone number to our database, and answered positively.

On top of that, users could use an additional service in which they could pay 1000 euros to have their phone numbers removed from our database.

Incautious Porn is a collaboration between arts, sciences and humanities to investigate and to gain better understandings of the ways people perceive the publicness of the content they publish online.

All of this was done to create a large scale participatory performance by means of a simulacrum, a state of suspended disbelief in which many combined, coordinated and systematized inputs found in the transmedia environment confirm the existence of a service, in this case, to make it perceived as real in order to engage people into becoming performers by having to deal with this presence, and expressing their opinions, desires and visions for a preferred form of reality (through text, actions, lawsuits, emails, social media expressions and more).

All to answer one main research question:

How do Internet users understand the reach and implications of the content and information they publish online as a result of their daily digital life?

And how are they able to perceive and understand the mechanisms and flows according to which this content and information can be used in multiple ways and by multiple agencies, ranging from information brokers, governmental agencies, service operators, marketing and more?

Incautious Porn comes under the form of an artistic performance embedding an ethnographical observation on the field.

The initiative was designed as a transmedia narrative under Jenkin’s definition (2006).

Incautious Porn is also a simulacrum under Baudrillard’s definition (1981): it is not a copy of the real, but a truth in its own right, an hyperreal. And, as such, under Deleuze’s (1968) perspective, it aims to position itself in a “privileged position” to observe the phenomena of our world and to challenge them, to open novel spaces for their critical discussion.

Following Baudrillard’s description of the simulacrum, the company’s business model is modeled across a 4-step process composed by (a) basic reflection of reality; (b) perversion of reality; (c) pretense of reality; and (d) simulacrum.

According to this approach, Incautious Porn’s business model closely mimics the ones of major social networking service providers: it leverages the fact that users constantly produce and publish content and expressions on online spaces, harvesting it and processing it using mechanisms and algorithms which are completely obscure to Internet users, and then using the resulting information to enact their business strategies by means of communication, marketing, commerce and information brokerage and curation.

From the legal point of view, we tried to mimic as closely as possible the structure of most social networking services providers’ Terms of Service agreements (ToS), proposed to internet users when they sign up to online services.

They are complex legal texts which very few people actually read. And even if they did read them, only a very limited part of the user base would have the skills and legal/technical literacy which would be needed to comprehend them and their effective meaning. Mimicking this fact, we filled the entire website with texts and documents which use the same type of language, to understand and measure how different kinds of people were able to comprehend it and to make sense from it. For example, on the “check if your number is on our database” page, a simple form asked the user to input their phone number and to provide credit card information. The fine print read “… by entering a phone number […] in this form, you are technically entering it in our database, and give us permission to use it” and continuing in the description of the list of applicable laws and of the usage that Incautious Porn would do with it.

From an ethical point of view, a number of strategies were put into place to preserve people’s privacy and to avoid causing harm or damage to them.

The comments were really harvested from all the websites, so that we could count them and, thus, measure the degree of recurrence of this kind of phenomenon. But the phone numbers were protected using a unidirectional hashing technique (SHA1) so that the captured phone number would be made unreadable.

Furthermore, when people purchased one of the paintings they received it with the image and content, but the identified phone number string was replaced with the one corresponding to a mobile SIM card which we purchased on purpose for the project. In this way we were able to protect users’ phone numbers, and to observe people’s behaviour (for example, wether they decided to actually call the number once they received the painting).

And, last, about the 1000euros transaction to have one of the phone numbers removed from the database, no information was stored and no transaction was performed: after a “please wait” procedure, the user was disclosed with an explanatory message, and presented with the opportunity to download a kit for personal anonymisation and privacy protection (TOR was suggested) as well as a text suggesting critical approaches to social networking and Internet service usage (for this, the books by the Ippolita Collective were proposed: “In the Facebook Aquarium” and “The Dark Side of Google”).

According to Google Analytics, the Incautious Porn Website received about 2M views.

At the time of writing, 187 painting have been sold, 7353 phone numbers were verified and 4 requests for removal were placed, 1 of which by a journalist who had wished to verify what would really happen when clicking the “remove it” button on the website, as he later told us during an interview.

We received more than 30000 email messages and social networking direct messages whose subject included Incautious Porn.

The initiative generated many reactions across the web, and a discussion quickly arose.

We monitored social media (Twitter, Facebook and Google+) to observe Incautious Porn mentions, discussions and linking/sharing patterns.

Only a minority (about 8%) of the users who expressed online confronted with the fact that the scheme used is very similar to the ones used everyday by social networking providers: harvest as much personal information as possible, to use it for commercial purposes according to schemes which are not only opaque to users, but also imperceptible, as they take place “behind the scenes”.

Several people (about 22%) identified possible blackmail schemes.

A small number of people (12%) used Incautious Porn as a starting point for discussions in which multiple topics were assessed: the fact that online services are not free, but paid with users’ personal data; the substantial insecurity of disclosing any personal detail online.

Most people (38%) expressed strong opposition to the business model of the fictional company. Some of them expressed specific doubts on certain scenarios which could happen, mainly people posting other people’s phone numbers as a joke or harassment.

Other people (15%) expressed in ironic favour of the initiative: quoting a comment on the article appeared on Forbes Magazine, “if they put their phone number out there, well they deserve it.

At this point, it is interesting to go back to our initial research questions.

To note that there is little to no perception about these issues as they develop in practical daily life, neither on the medium-long term persistence of published information, nor on the possibility for it to flow and traverse across different agencies, which can re-publish it, use it for their own purposes or businesses, re-sell it and so on.

From our point of view, this is due mostly to three leading factors: interface politics, literacy and awareness.

Interface Politics

Most of today’s interfaces are focused on the description of a state of continuous present. They are designed and engineered for the present. They are reactive, shifting and moving now, right now, as we look at the screen. They are designed and built to try to eliminate inhibitory processes from users, to make available everything they need to “like”, “reply”, “purchase”, “comment” and more, now, in this very minute, visible and colourful.

In is in this space that something breaks in people’s perception: in the space that runs between the perception of the continuous present and the fact that all this information is stored, processed and used by multiple agencies.

It is an opaque space, in which everything that happens is not clear.

Literacy and Awareness:

As highlighted in the results, even the few who have identified the possibility that Incautious Porn’s model is not really different from the ones used every day from major social networks, fail in performing the next step of this analysis. Because they do not know (and cannot know) what goes on beyond the generic description of the ways in which “they sell us everyday, hundreds of times, whenever we click on something”.

Conclusions

Incautious Porn, from our perspective, has been very successful in highlighting the presence of these kinds of issues, and in providing the tools for their wide (and cost-effective) ethnographical analysis., through art and creativity: both proved to be really effective in operating across the dimensions of desire and imagination to provoke the emergence of a widespread performative state in which people could freely express their opinions, emotions, visions and preferences.

On the other side, the negative approach (although, being ethically applied), enacted through a simulated blackmail scheme, finally revealed to be a limit. Better results would have probably been achieved should a more playful attitude had been adopted.

There is more information on the paper and on the Art is Open Source website: please feel free to contact us and to ask for information, data and anything else. For example, you could start from HERE

Salvatore Iaconesi

Written by

Artist. President at https://www.he-r.it/, founder at http://www.artisopensource.net/. Teaches Near Future Design and Transmedia Design.

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