Manhunt Policy Change Raises Questions Anew About Internet Privacy

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 22, 2010


Manhunt, the world's most popular social networking website for gay men most of them looking to hook up for a possible sexual encounter, recently made some changes to make it easier for people to see profiles without being members.

The changes have drawn renewed attention to concerns about Internet privacy. The site's parent company maintains that it has taken steps to secure members' personal information, such as their real names and e-mail addresses, which are not in their profiles. But one online security expert says it's possible to copy or download allegedly secure profile photos.

Manhunt, owned by Online Buddies, Inc., is the Facebook of online gay hook-ups.

The social networking behemoth boasts more than four million members, half in the United States and the rest in 97 foreign countries. It's the most popular gay sex site, not only in the U.S., but also in Brazil and Mexico. It also has many fans throughout Europe and around the world. The site receives more than 10 million unique visits a month.

Based in Cambridge, Mass., Manhunt was founded in 2001 by Larry Basile and Jonathan Crutchley. According to an Online Buddies spokesperson, neither remains active in its management.

A Republican, Crutchley made some news in 2008 when he ruffled liberal feathers within and outside the company by donating $2,300 to John McCain's presidential campaign. The campaign returned the contribution, so Crutchley supported Barack Obama instead.

Information Stored Securely

Online Buddies earns revenues from paid memberships and advertising. It's not a public company, so it doesn't report financial information. Because it has so many members, Manhunt is likely a huge cash cow.

CEO Adam Segel told EDGE that unlike Facebook, which includes personal information in user profiles, such as legal names, e-mail addresses and employment information that can be accessed through search engines, Manhunt stores it in a separate and secure database, along with credit card information.

He explained that the policy change, which allows home page visitors to search profiles without logging in, was introduced gradually to collect feedback from test markets before Online Buddies implemented it site-wide last August.

Well before then, Manhunt informed members about the change so they could review it and consider their privacy options.

"We feel that by allowing new visitors the ability to quickly scan through the site, they'll be able to see firsthand that we have the world's hottest guys," said Segel. "Visitors who are checking out public profiles without being logged in can't see anyone's private pictures, nor can they contact anyone with e-mails, IMs or winks."

He pointed out that Manhunt never displays legal names. "If you want someone's real name, you have to ask him for it--and it helps to remember it when he comes over later," Segel explained.

He added that members can opt out of letting non-members see their profile by clicking a checkbox on the settings screen.

EDGE consulted Lorrie Cranor, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a leading Internet privacy expert, to determine whether it's possible to bypass Manhunt's security protections.

'Privacy Is Dead'

She was quoted in a Nov. 1 Newsweek story whose headline says it all: "Privacy is dead."

When EDGE asked if Cranor agreed with the writer's hypothesis, she said she didn't, at least not entirely. "I think you can have privacy, but you have to be very active at protecting it," explained Cranor. "You have to be realistic about what privacy is."

She described privacy and anonymity as a spectrum. At one end, "everything you do on the Internet has your real name on it," she said. At the other, one can take protections so it's impossible for others to detect their identity.

"In between, you can set things up so that it is very difficult for people to identify you, so that only police with a warrant can figure it out," Cranor explained.

EDGE asked her to test a couple of potential security breaches discovered when it visited the Manhunt home page without logging in: the ability to unlock photos in member profiles and copy a profile page containing photos.

"I see photos of men's faces," Cranor reported when she went to the site's home page and began looking at profiles. "So even though I don't have a name, I have a face that, theoretically, I might recognize. If I had a database of men's faces I could use a computer program to try to identify some of these people."

Cranor reported that there have been tremendous advances in facial recognition software. Most is expensive and only law enforcement and sophisticated techies use it. But some, though not as reliable, is less costly and available to the general public.

Matching Name to Face (& Other Body Parts)

Many Manhunt members likely also have Facebook pages with photos, she pointed out. If Manhunt photos can be matched with those on Facebook, "you could identify them by their real names."

"What commonly happens on Facebook is you post a photo and set your privacy settings so only your friends and friends of their friends can see it," Cranor continued. "But you don't know who your friends' friends are. You are making the photo available to a wide group of people. People don't think that through."

Like many other web sites, Manhunt prevents use of the right-click on a computer mouse to copy or save photos on member profiles. However, screen capture software bypasses that protection.

Cranor used her Mac to copy a photo. Apple computers contain an application program called Preview, which has a screen-shot feature. "I dragged my mouse over a profile photo and I now have my own copy," she reported.

'It's easy to lie online but not so easy to look someone in the eye & say "I'm negative" when you're not.'

"Manhunt's photo security measures are extremely vigilant when it comes to preventing unauthorized access," Segel said when EDGE asked him to comment on what EDGE and Cranor discovered. "We're unaware and have never heard any reports of this happening. Not a single member has shared a concern or reported a security breach."

He also said that it's possible to capture anything on a computer screen using the print screen feature or a digital camera to take a photo of a computer monitor and then post the image online.

Manhunt uses techniques to prevent unauthorized image downloading, Segel added. "We continue to monitor any emerging technologies that will provide the latest and greatest security to our members."

EDGE spoke with two New York City Manhunt members to learn how they like it and whether they have experienced any problems. To protect their privacy, EDGE used only their first names.

Monty moved to Brooklyn three months ago from the East Village and has been a member since the site's start-up. His experiences in meeting other members range from the positive to the downright nasty.

"I've met some of my best friends on Manhunt," he said.

Then he related what happened when he arranged a hook-up at his East Village apartment one night in 2007.

"The guy totally ripped me off," Monty recalled. "He walked out after I fell asleep. My keys, my wallet and lots of my possessions were gone."

Monty freaked out: "I started calling all over the place to find this guy. He strolled back in four hours later, saying he went to Splash [the Manhattan gay dance bar] and spent all my money. He gave me my keys, but when I asked him to return my money, he assaulted me."

The trick poked Monty's eye with his finger. "My eye almost came out. I chased him out of the building." Police who happened to be nearby arrested the guy.

News media have reported similar incidents when people arranged to meet escorts on Craigslist, which recently shut down its adult services section after a firestorm of criticism.

Craigslist's "men meeting men" section remains a place to arrange liaisons.

Monty said the two sites are similar: "I used to think people were on Manhunt for a purpose, but, like Craigslist, it's more to waste other people's time."

He believes Manhunt's new policy designed to attract more members "reinforces the idea that you should be careful with anything you post on the Internet. There are people out there who mean to do you harm."

Monty has had photos stolen from his profile even though he had locked them to prevent copying. In one instance, he recognized a picture of his torso on another member's profile. The clincher was that it was accompanied by the name of the photographer, a friend of his.

"I didn't unlock it for him," Monty reported. "He could have gotten it unlocked through another person's profile. You have to be careful about closing down your profile when you're getting ready to go offline. If you leave it on even briefly someone can get in there and wreak havoc."

Revealing HIV Status & Drug Use

Manhunt allows members to look for other members in a panoply of categories. Among them are location, age, body type, eye color, HIV status and what kind of sex they are into. Monty has concerns about some of them.

"I discourage anyone from posting their HIV status," he said, "especially if you're positive. That's information that people use to hurt others."

Monty believes discussing HIV status is best left to a one-on-one conversation: "It's easy to lie about it online but not so easy when you have to look someone in the eye and say 'I'm negative' when you're not."

He's also concerned about barebacking (unprotected sex), which he says members should say they are into before meeting. Not all do, he reported.

"Party and play," the euphemism for doing drugs such as crystal meth during sex that some Manhunt members include in their profiles, is dangerous for at least one reason. "I know first hand that police officers go undercover on Manhunt," Monty said. "People should know that."

A licensed massage therapist, he doesn't advertise his services on Manhunt. "I think it's in poor taste to do that," he said. "It's a site for pick-ups or finding friends and not a place to do business."

James, an attractive young man who lives in Manhattan, would disagree. He runs A-List New York City sex parties that he advertises on Manhunt. He joined the site eight years ago, but no longer has a personal account.

His ads get good results --†as one would expect, considering Manhunt's dominance of the category. But he also plugs his parties on Adam4Adam, another website that facilitates hook-ups. There, he can list events. "You can't do that on Manhunt," James explained. "You have to take out ads. I also get a lot of people by word of mouth."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].