How a ‘Digital Peeping Tom’ Unmasked Porn Actors

“It’s like the secret identity of Batman or Superman. You’re not supposed to know who this person is, they didn’t want you to know, and somehow you found out.”
Photo collage of a person looking through window blinds a person with lasers crisscrossing their face and a person in...
Photo-illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

David had an addiction. Ever since he was a kid, he had spent countless hours of his life on the internet searching for naked photos of women and videos of them having sex. He wasn’t happy about how much time he spent looking for online pornography, but he couldn’t stop.

At some point, he began to want more. He wanted to know who the women really were, to dig beyond their pseudonyms, find out their actual names, and see what they were like in real life. He heard about a tool to do that on a porn discussion board called FreeOnes. Someone had shared a photo of a porn actress, out of character, clothed and smiling, in a news article. Asked how he had found it, the person posted a link to PimEyes, a free facial recognition site.

David, who is in his thirties, checked out PimEyes. It was pretty basic. The landing page said “Face Search” in bold white letters, with an invitation to “upload photos of one person.” PimEyes claimed to have hundreds of millions of faces from 150 million websites. All he had to do was upload a screenshot of a woman and the site would return photos of people it deemed most similar to her. “We do not save your search images,” the site promised, adding with painful irony, “Online privacy is very important for us.”

The PimEyes face search tool worked. David was able to upload screenshots of women whose pornography he had watched and get photos of them from elsewhere on the web, a trail that sometimes led him to their legal names. From there, he could know where they lived and find them in the real world, a scary possibility if he had the desire to hurt or assault them. But that was not the appeal for him. Unmasking them was all he sought to do.

“You find them on Facebook and see their personal pictures or whatever and it makes it more exciting,” David said. “It’s like the secret identity of Batman or Superman. You’re not supposed to know who this person is, they didn’t want you to know, and somehow you found out.”

The women keep their identities secret for a reason. Polite society doesn’t tend to approve of their line of work. In 2014, a freshman at Duke University was revealed by a classmate to be a porn actress named Belle Knox. When people found out that the student was paying her $60,000 tuition by having sex on film, she was shunned on campus and harassed online. “I was called a ‘slut who needs to learn the consequences of her actions,’ a ‘huge fucking whore,’ and, perhaps the most offensive, ‘a little girl who does not understand her actions,’” she wrote at the time.

Ela Darling, a former librarian turned adult film star, got into the industry after an ex-boyfriend threatened to put compromising photos and videos of her online. She decided she’d rather do that herself, and make money off of it. Darling had two Facebook accounts, one for her porn identity under the stage name “Ela Darling,” and another associated with her legal name and “vanilla” life. After she friended someone with her vanilla account, she would sign in to her porn account and block the person so that they couldn’t see or access that version of herself. She did that to protect herself, her family, and her friends from harassment and to avoid the penalties of stigma. “We’re not a protected class,” she said. In other words, people can discriminate against adult film actors. They can refuse to hire them, rent them an apartment, or provide services to them.

When a recent landlord found out about Darling’s adult film work, she refused to renew Darling’s lease, leaving her scrambling for a new place to live. A couple years back, Airbnb, the house rental site, banned Darling from its platform during a time when it appeared to be purging anyone who worked in the sex industry. Darling said she had never even had sex in an Airbnb. But this is the world facial recognition will usher in even more rapidly, one in which people are prejudged based on choices they’ve made in the past, not their behavior in the present.

David said he had no interest in outing the women or causing any problems for them. He considered himself a digital Peeping Tom, not interfering in any way, just looking through a window into a porn star’s real life. He would screenshot the results of his searches and store them on an encrypted drive, because he never wanted anyone else to find them.

It was a solitary game for him, an invasive fetish that appealed in part because of the challenge it presented. Once he came across a woman he liked in a “casting couch” video, a genre of porn in which a prospective actress is interviewed and then “auditions” for the job by having sex with her interviewer on said couch. He ran the young woman’s face through PimEyes. One of the hits was a photo of her on a high school website. Her name wasn’t included, but David kept searching and discovered that the school had a Flickr account with thousands of photos. He found “spring formal” photos from the year he thought she might have graduated and started scrolling through them, and within 20 minutes, he found a photo of her that included her name. He was a technologist, but he felt he could change careers to become a private investigator.

Once David knew an actress’s identity, he tended to lose interest in her. Eventually, he tired of unmasking professionals and moved on to what he considered truly shameful. “I went through my entire Facebook list of friends,” he said. Not the entire list. Just the women.

Over 15 years on Facebook, he had befriended hundreds of women. The first person he got a hit for was a near stranger he had met one time at a club while on vacation. They had become Facebook friends and then never interacted again. “It turned out she shot porn at some point in her life,” he said. “She’s a brunette now, but in the porn, she was blond.”

Then he found more: A friend had posted nude photos to a Reddit community called Gone Wild, a place intended to anonymously collect compliments on one’s body. There were topless photos of an acquaintance who had participated in the World Naked Bike Ride. A woman who had applied for a room he had rented out once had naked selfies on a revenge porn website. The women’s names weren’t attached to the photos. They had been safely obscure until a search tool came along that organized the internet by face.

It can be extremely difficult to remove naked photos of yourself from the internet. Search engines such as Google have free request forms to excise them from a name search, but what about a face search? That, naturally, was a service PimEyes provided—for a price. The PimEyes “PROtect plan” started at around $80 per month. It was advertised as a way to find photos you didn’t know about, with “dedicated support” to help get them taken down from the sites where they appeared, but one woman trying to get regrettable photos removed from the service called it professionalized sextortion.

Originally created in Poland by a couple of “hacker” types, PimEyes was purchased in 2021 for an undisclosed amount by a professor of security studies based in Tbilisi, Georgia. The professor told me that he believed facial recognition technology, now that it exists and is not going away, should be accessible to everyone. A ban on the technology would be as effective, he said, as the US prohibition on alcohol had been in the 1920s. Those who paid attention to a box you had to click before performing a search would see that you are only supposed to search for your own face. Looking up other people without their consent, the professor said, was a violation of European privacy laws. Yet the site had no technical controls in place to ensure a person could only upload their own photo for a search.

Too many people currently on the internet do not realize what is possible. People on OnlyFans, Ashley Madison, Seeking, and other websites that cultivate anonymity are hiding their names but exposing their faces, not realizing the risk in doing so. David wondered if he should tell his friends, anonymously, that these photos were out there, and findable due to new technology, but he worried that they would be creeped out and it would do more harm than good.

He had never uploaded his own face to PimEyes, as was the service’s supposed purpose, because he did not want to know what photos it would turn up. “Ignorance is bliss,” he said.

From the book Your Face Belongs to Us: A Secretive Startup’s Quest to End Privacy as We Know It by Kashmir Hill. Copyright © 2023 by Kashmir Hill. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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