WASHINGTON – An Internet database of images designed to help diagnose skin problems has become a popular target for porn-seekers, according to a Johns Hopkins University researcher.
Porn or fetish sites directed many users to the site, and an unusually high number of image requests were for images of genitals, according to Christoph Lehmann, an assistant professor in pediatrics and health information sciences at the university’s School of Medicine and one of the founders of the Web site.
Lehmann led an analysis of the image requests over a six-month period and published the findings this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
“This was a paper that I never thought I was going to write,” Lehmann said. “We looked at searches people conducted and found some of our images were linked to sites that we didn’t want to be associated with.”
Lehmann rattled off some of the Web sites he found linked to the images: gorgasm.com, several foot-fetish sites, and even a site for people titillated by pimple squeezing.
Nine of the top 43 sites linking users to the image database were pornographic or fetish sites, Lehmann said. Together, the nine sites accounted for nearly one-sixth of all referrals. The database site averages about 30,000 hits a day from around the world.
The researchers also found that individual searches were disproportionately geared toward genital images. About 12 percent of searches for a specific diagnosis requested a genital region, and more than one-third of all queries for an anatomic site involved genitals, Lehmann said. The database contains more than 8,700 images of the body, but only about 5 percent display genital areas.
Images of children were an especially common target, Lehmann said. Users who requested an age group and a region of the body were nearly 50 percent more likely to be looking for pictures of children.
The FBI said it has no information about the medical school’s Web site.
“The whole idea of using this Web site to look at children is not something we’re familiar with,” said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman. “There are a number of other alternatives for pedophiles to get that material other than going to a medical Web site.”
Other visitors to the database, which was started in 2000, have gotten the wrong idea about it because it features photos of children’s bodies, Lehmann said. Several years ago, someone filed a complaint about the site with the Maryland State Police.
“This is a study that, within the industry, not too many people are happy about,” Lehmann said. “It’s never a good thing to be investigated for child pornography. This is an online textbook. It contains certain images, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything related to child pornography.”
Once, Lehmann received an e-mail from someone who threatened to report Lehmann to the authorities if he did not receive an unspecified amount of money.
“It was someone who was inebriated and thought he could make some easy money,” Lehmann said. “That’s what it seemed to me.”
To discourage people from using the site for prurient purposes, Lehmann and the researchers have instituted a pair of filters. Users who search for certain terms will have their IP address blocked, he said. To access the system, they must e-mail the university for a password. In addition, many pornographic and fetish Web sites previously linked to the site have been blocked entirely.
“If I were to do this again, I would build both filters in from the get-go,” Lehmann said.
So far, the filters are working, he said. For every 10 users who are blocked, only one goes to the trouble of asking for the password.
“The Internet is so full of porn, these filters deter people from our site,” he said.
The misuse of images intended for academic purposes is nothing new, said Lehmann, who is convinced that similar sites are experiencing the same predicament.
“We went into this so naively, so blue-eyed,” Lehmann said. “We were very appalled and disappointed. I started to think about it, and I think it’s common. Everyone is anonymous on the Internet, and they think they can do whatever they want.”
– 30 – CNS-4-19-06