Friday, February 17, 2012

What Happens Online Stays Online?

By Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S

Today’s omnipresent fear that one’s personal identifying data (e.g., social security number or credit card information) may be vulnerable to hackers and identity theft has pushed millions of subscribers into the arms of “identity theft protection” companies like LifeLock.

But is anyone really paying attention to what will happen when the sexually explicit language and photos that are sent via the latest “friend finder” smart-phone app or sex website get hacked or otherwise exploited?

When “joining” sites like Ashley Madison or downloading apps like Blendr, participants are offered some measure of comfort via a click-it guarantee that personal information will be securely maintained. But somehow it seems off the radar to the same professionals and/or married individuals, who would never send their social security number online via an unsecured site, that when you sext and arrange app-based sexual hook-ups, every word and pic sent via these apps also resides in a far-away server. And that information lives there for a whole lot longer than the instant it takes to sext a potential hook-up.

What happens to all the intensely personal, intimate sexual imagery and language now housed in the servers of companies like Ashley Madison (currently reporting over 9 million members), Adult Sex Finder and Grindr, to name just a few, if these business are bought out, go under or just plain get hacked? If recent news stories are any indication, online sexual activity isn’t nearly as private as many may naively believe:

Last month, Grindr, a popular smartphone app that enables gay men to meet other gay men using their phone’s GPS, was compromised by a Sydney hacker, who then placed users’ personal chats, explicit photos and private information online. This app currently has more than one million users worldwide. Security experts warn that the same vulnerabilities are present in other hook-up apps such as Blendr (the straight version of the app) and Ashley Madison.

Last week, a young man affiliated with hacker group Anonymous claimed to have hacked into a website operated by pornography provider Brazzers. The emails, usernames and other personal information of more than 350,000 users may have been exposed, a small sample of which were posted publicly online.

Anonymous has also just claimed responsibility for taking down the CIA website. Previously, the group took aim at the FBI, the Department of Justice, entertainment companies and the Church of Scientology, among others. Similar groups have targeted the U.S. Census Bureau, Interpol and various state public safety departments.

Over 20 years as a specialist in the field of adult intimacy disorders and sexual addiction has taught me (and you can see it clearly in the film Shame), that those intellectually stable, but emotionally challenged adults with problem patterns of sexual behavior can and do destroy their careers and tear apart their relationships without meaning to do so. All the while they believe they were somehow “safe” from being found out.

Unfortunately nearly all of these men and women prior to getting help expressed feeling when they are in the pursuit or “bubble” of their sexual and romantic highs that:

  • They are “in control” and “know what they are doing”
  • “No one will ever know or find out” if they’re “careful”

I need only cite Fmr. Congressman Anthony Weiner as one of the many unfortunate examples of this type of denial. And there are many more such individuals with stories in and out of the media nearly every day.

As technology becomes more intimately threaded into our lives, perhaps we need to broaden our ideas about what is truly “private” and what can be readily uncovered and shared in a public forum. If not, when the day comes (and it will) that the personal data currently maintained by any of the friend-sex-finder websites/apps are exposed and posted on a U.S. website, the Anthony Weiner sexting story, his subsequent marital separation and congressional resignation are going to look like a Girl Scout party by comparison.

Robert Weiss is the author of three books on sexual addiction and Founding Director of the premiere sex addiction treatment program, The Sexual Recovery Institute. He is Director of Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. These centers serve individuals seeking sexual addiction treatment, love addiction treatment, and porn addiction help. Specifically, the Centers for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch (CRSR) offer specialized intimacy, sex and relationship addiction treatment for both men and women in gender-specific, gender-separate treatment and living environments.

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