Love Trouble: Can you protect your privacy when dating online?

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Singles have a difficult time being targeted by Cupid’s arrows during the pandemic. But not by advertisers.  

Dating apps usage and signup rates spiked during the pandemic. While acknowledging that a split-second swipe on the dating app will never be the same as the romantic chance encounter, the limitations of life in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic make online dating apps seem like the only option. 

Early online dating sites like Match.com talked about the strength of their algorithms to make matches. OK Cupid, founded in 2004 by two Harvard Math grads with the sales pitch “we use Math to find you dates”, claimed to have a better algorithm, a better Math behind the app (talking about 94% chance of a successful match in a TEDEd video). In 2004, neither the founders nor the users of these services were likely to be aware of the targeting potential of data.

The new generation of mobile apps such as Tinder and Bumble do not talk about algorithms. Instead when two geographically proximate people swiped right, it is their responsibility to find a match in each other. And their main source revenue is advertising. However, there is no classic display of advertising on these platforms that you pay to remove with premium membership (as in the case of YouTube).

dating online during the pandemic can be rough.

Instead, they let online advertisers reach, mine, harvest and use your personal information to target you. So much so that dating apps began to see privacy measures as a detriment to revenue. Bumble’s IPO filing last month warned investors that complying with the new privacy requirements of Apple could impact its bottom line because advertisers won’t be able to reach app users which limits their ability to market to them and in turn making Bumble a less attractive outlet. Not surprising considering their privacy policy states in Section 4: What Others May See About You: “We think our Bumblers are awesome, and we want you to share how awesome you are with the world.

A report from 2020 titled “Out of Control: How Consumers Are Exploited by the Online Advertising Industry” by the Norwegian Consumer Council sheds light on the privacy risks of using online dating apps. Like other mobile apps we use for “free”, dating apps extract personal information with third-party ad software to create a profile on users with unique user-tracking codes. They combine the data they extract from other apps with the data they get from the dating app thanks to the unique code the mobile device has been given. 

The type of data they collect is collected and processed independently of its sensitivity: your favorite dessert and your sexual orientation are handled in the same manner by third parties. Besides, dating app users are unlikely to know who these third parties are and how much compliance the dating app enforces on its third-party partners. The question of liability of the dating app in the case of a third party data breach is also not clear to the dating app users. Finally, how many new third-parties the original third-party can share personal information with remains unclear. 

A recent report from Brookings Institute on the digital privacy issues of online dating emphasizes the higher risk young people and LGBTQ+ face: “While 30% of U.S. adults had tried online dating in 2019, that percentage rises to 55% for LGBTQ+ adults and 48% for individuals ages 18 to 29.” 

Even if apps do not share your data with any third parties (and many will), privacy is still part of a loop that involves cybersecurity. If the dating app or the partner has a data breach, your personal information will likely end up with data brokers if not with more opaque entities on the dark web that may be involved in identity theft and other cybercrimes. Bumble (as recent as November 2020), OKCupid, Tinder and many other apps had data breach issues in the past. 

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

How can you protect your privacy while using an online dating app?

  • Read the privacy policy of the app before signing up, if you can’t read the fine print, at least do some online research about what people say on forums and blogs. 
  • Checking how stringent the app store privacy policy is (as indicated by the recent Bumble IPO warning about Apple; and Whatsapp’s recent clash with Apple over privacy) could be another safety measure. 
  • Do not sign up with your social media profile. Use a Masked Email instead (you can use Blur by Abine’s Masked Email for free, or the Premium Masked Phone service). 
  • Don’t answer every question they ask, such as your religion, political leanings, height, weight, astrological sign, etc. If someone is interested in you, they will want to get to know you and ask you all sorts of questions to find out about you, anyway. If your potential match chooses to ask about religion and politics, you will see how tactfully they handle delicate topics, which is a great way to find out about your potential date. Most apps do not match you with a math-based algorithm, so giving out so many details serves no other purpose than being targeted by advertisers.  
  • Do not upload a passport identification page, driver’s license and other official ID to get a verification on the dating app. Since the apps don’t enforce verification as a requirement for signup, you’ll be chatting with a lot of people without verification anyway. Imagine who will get this information if the app or its third-party partners have a data breach, as they often do.
  • Beware of sharing your location and using apps that have proximity-based matching, as the sharing of your location with a host of perfect strangers (even if you swiped some of them right) might lead stalkers to your door. 
  • Keep in mind that there have been many cases of scammers and blackmailers on online dating apps demanding money from men and women, as well as cybercriminals who target people for doxing and stalking. 
  • Do not share your health information, whether it’s your HIV status or something else. 
  • Refrain from exchanging private photos and be careful during video calls.

All these privacy vulnerabilities for users of online dating apps make one thing clear, there’s room in the online dating market for a privacy-by-design app that’s built with zero trust principles; a Raya for the masses that follows a strict privacy policy. Raya screens each user before joining, enforces community rules for respecting the privacy of members, where disclosing identity of matches and taking screenshots lead to being kicked out. It may not be bulletproof, but at least the intention of safeguarding privacy is there.

Don’t lose heart, until a safe app comes along old school is cool. Give the matchmaking abilities of kith and kin a chance and keep your heart soft and warm, as Plato said: “Love—Cupid—makes his home in people’s hearts, but not in every heart, for where there is hardness he departs.” 

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