The amateur porn industry can teach us a lot about online privacy

When adult entertainment brushes up against traditional entertainment.
When adult entertainment brushes up against traditional entertainment.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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It’s early November in Portland, Oregon, and Dan Savage—probably America’s best-known sex-advice columnist—is standing on the stage of a former high-school auditorium, engaging the audience in a bit of call-and-response.

“Turn your smartphone…” he calls out.
“OFF!” roars the crowd.
“We will take it…”
“You will never get it…”

It’s the finale of a seven-minute monologue, in which Savage describes the behavior and privacy rules of the film festival they’re about to view. While privacy is of grave concern to many ventures and individuals, it’s especially crucial for HUMP! Film Festival because of its subject matter: amateur pornography.

The HUMP! film festival was established by Savage in 2005, starting life as a one-time-only screening of amateur adult films in Seattle. Savage solicited the videos through a request made in The Stranger, the free weekly paper where his advice column, “Savage Love,” originated. The festival grew dramatically, adding nights in Seattle, expanding to Portland in 2008, and adding a national tour in 2015. HUMP!’s 2016/17 edition is currently touring 30 cities in the US and Canada, and according to the festival’s executive producer, Robert Crocker, it will be viewed in person by over 20,000 people.

And since its founding 12 years ago, HUMP! has never had any of its content leaked.

In an era where the phrase “sex tape” practically comes attached to the word “leaked” and data hacks affecting millions are so commonplace that they barely make the news, keeping anything secret for 12 years is a tremendous feat. And when what’s being kept secret includes explicit video of gangbangs, bondage, and musical routines about vaginal fisting—all featured in HUMP!’s current run—it’s nearly miraculous.

Both the festival’s staff and its attendees work to protect the anonymity of those who participate in the festival. That call-and-response chant about not taking pictures with your phone isn’t the entirety of HUMP!’s security protocol, but it contains many of the elements that make it effective: It recruits the audience as allies rather than adversaries. And the policy it describes is enforced with absolutely zero tolerance. Festival staff will take your phone away if they see it in your hand, for any reason, at any point during the screening.

“90% of the time, it’s someone who wasn’t thinking, and instinctively took their phone out to check something or text someone,” Crocker explains. Confiscated phones are held until the end of the show, at which point its owner must unlock the phone in front of security and show them every single image it contains. Most violators are understanding about the process, though a few are not. “We get the cops called on us about a dozen times each festival season,” Crocker says, adding that the police invariably side with the organizers.

The festival literally could not exist without this level of security. “Be a pornstar for the weekend, not the rest of your life” is one of its semi-official taglines, emphasizing the idea that who contributes films is just as important as what they contribute. In keeping with Savage’s two-decade crusade to demystify sexual diversity, HUMP! is expressly designed to bring in as wide a variety of people as possible: gay, straight, bisexual, queer, trans, and kink-forward folks are your next-door neighbors and supermarket cashiers—and they have no interest in letting porn becoming their full-time identity.

“People do want to express that side of themselves, and this provides a very safe space. We’d get very different entries if that wasn’t a gigantic component,” explains Erin Rackelman, the festival’s marketing director. “There’s an incredible vulnerability to some of the entries, and you have to do your damndest to protect it.”

That’s a big reason why HUMP! takes such care to make its policies clear through a contract that must be signed before entering the theater, and numerous verbal warnings. In Portland and Seattle, Savage does this in person; now that the festival is touring, Rackelman or another staff member will give in-person reinforcement to Dan’s pre-recorded video. In cases where the hosting theater doesn’t have access to the encrypted DCP file transfer system HUMP! prefers (the same one used by Hollywood studios to securely transfer first-run films), traveling staff must also occasionally bring the entire festival’s films with them on a thumb drive or DVD.

In earlier years, submissions were received on physical media (usually DVD), which Savage destroyed on stage at the end of the last screening. According to Crocker, he once cut himself doing this (broken DVDs are sharp). Nowadays, contributors often submit their films to HUMP! via Dropbox and then receive an email the same day letting them know it’s been received, downloaded to a secure drive, that the Dropbox version has been deleted, and advising them to do the same on their end. There’s even a person in the office who has this as part of the job description.

Because nothing is saved, and very little is transmitted electronically, some otherwise simple tasks become more complicated. The first year HUMP! decided to tour beyond Portland and Seattle, they wanted to put together a best-of compilation, but not only did they have no copies of the previous years’ films—they had no way of contacting the contributors.

“We do check drivers licenses to make sure everyone’s of age,” Rackelman explains, “but we have to destroy all that too.” They ended up putting a call out in Savage’s column, listing the names of the films they hoped to re-use. Press releases are also problematic when you can’t send out stills from the films or name the contributors. HUMP! does press screenings, but only through a temporary web page with an access password that’s only valid for a few hours.

If there’s a broader lesson about digital security to take away from all of this, it’s that there is no easy way out. In a digital environment that’s constantly looking for shortcuts and greater efficiencies, the very technology that consolidates data and simplifies sharing also makes it more vulnerable. We might like having instant access to all of our stuff in one place, but we have to acknowledge that what’s easier for us is also, in many cases, easier for our assailants. HUMP! does it the hard way, keeping things isolated, not holding onto copies, taking the most labor-intensive route—and this is in large part what keeps it safe.

The deeper story is how they’ve managed to make it this many years without succumbing to laziness. It’s one thing to take the high-effort route for a one-night, off-the-cuff film screening for an extended group of friends, but quite another to maintain that approach when your festival plans to tour 50 cities next year. The people who run HUMP! love the thing they’ve made, and in the long run, that may be what makes it unhackable.