ArticlesExplainersThe PrivacyTheft Series

PrivacyTheft: Online Dating

Trying to protect your privacy while online dating can be tough. The nature of the game means making some of your private life public – you’re literally contributing your personal information to a database with the intention of sharing it with hundreds or thousands of strangers. You tell dating apps your name, age, location, and your sexual preferences. In some cases, you tell them what schools you attended, who your friends are, and allow them to access your photos and social media profiles. 

This article is part of our PrivacyTheft Series.

Each post takes a deep look into one of the ways that our digital world is taking our information without asking, and putting us at risk.

And when you match, you begin chatting with someone you know nothing about, give them a phone number to call or text you, and finally (sometimes) agree to meet them in person – where all kinds of other information is shared and risks are incurred.

How can you use dating apps and still protect your privacy? What should you do after the match to protect yourself?

Let’s dive deeper into the risks and learn a little bit about how to minimize them.

Risk #1: Excessive Data Collection

Dating apps harvest a lot of data about you: where you live, work, how old you are, what social accounts you have. Depending on the app, they’ll also collect unique information by asking you personal questions that would help refine their matching algorithm. 

More information is revealed, indirectly, as you use to the apps themselves. Each time you swipe, you’re giving away more information. How long you spend on a user’s profile may reveal preferences based on racial background, assumed income, or even hair color. And this can be gleaned simply from how long it takes you to swipe left or right!

Those chats that take place inside the apps are also data collection points. Everything you say there is subject to review, analysis, and storage by the app makers.

Finally, dating apps can collect a lot of information just by existing on your phone. Depending on permissions and the app, your information is constantly being siphoned, even if it doesn’t affect your matching capabilities—it’s just part of the app’s revenue strategy (we’ll discuss that later on). 

Risk #2: Dating Apps Get Hacked

Remember the 2015 Ashley Madison hack? It culminated in a dark web data dump that included the account details and log-in information of 32 million users, seven years of users’ credit card information, and the passwords, addresses, and phone numbers users submitted to the site. Part of the reason why it made headlines is because it was fuel for hackers to extort users by threatening to reveal their membership on the site, a scheme that’s still happening in 2020.

And this wasn’t a one-time thing. Many dating apps have suffered multiple data breaches and hacks since then.

In February of 2019, OkCupid, Jack’d, and CoffeeMeetsBagel suffered hacks and data breaches that resulted in a range of issues, from users having their accounts taken over to profiles and personal details being leaked in a malicious data breach. In Jack’d’s case users’ profile photos were also exposed in a publicly accessible database.

Hackers know dating profiles contain a lot of sensitive and unique info, which is why they’re such an attractive target.

Risk #3: Dating Apps and Data Sharing

Until recently, most dating apps weren’t dependent upon advertising dollars, so the worry of selling profile info directly to marketers didn’t seem like a worry. But increasingly even the larger apps that make a lot of money from paid users have in-app ads. 

A recent investigation found that apps like Grindr and OkCupid were sharing data and sensitive details like sexual orientation and answers to personal questions, with analytic, marketing, and ad-tech companies who could use that data to help hundreds of their corporate customers.

Dating app conglomerates, like Match Group—owners of Tinder, Match.com, and Hinge, among others—will also share data amongst the apps they own. This means the data Tinder collects, can find its way into OkCupid’s database (Match owns them too).

The other evidence that nearly all many of these apps are still sharing data with multiple third parties? They would crow about privacy if they had clean hands on this issue.

Risk #4: Harassment or Stalking

The assumption when you create a profile and upload your photos is that you’ll only match with users that you desire to meet. But it’s easy to reveal a little too much and make it possible for ‘enthusiastic’ suiters to reach out to you in real life even if you don’t swipe or match them in the app.

This can happen because of clues you unintentionally provided in your bio or profile. Or it can happen because you used photos that had appeared already on other social media sites. 

Here’s a risk you may not have known about – if one of your profile photos is also found on any other online account, a reverse image search will reveal to anyone exactly who you are. It may also be as simple as you having a unique name and you’re just easy to find online even without your surname, especially if you mention an industry, company, or other second piece of data.

All of this means you’re at risk for receiving a message on Facebook or LinkedIn or some other platform, or worse an email or personal visit.

Risk #5: Dates gone wrong

Aside from all of the above, what if the app works and you get a match? Great, right? You chat and the connection seems interesting, so you move to SMS text, phone calls, or a get-together in real life. So far, so good.

But sometimes you exchanged numbers or made a date too soon. Or it just took a little longer to figure out that the real spark wasn’t there. Hopefully you can make a friendly and respectful exit – but sometimes the text messages, calls, or worse keeps on coming. This can quickly turn into harassment or stalking, and if, during the consensual conversation you shared your permanent phone number, address, place of work, or other information it can be a problem that’s hard to shake.

So What Do You Do?

Dating is a great example of our belief that you have to be practical and pragmatic when solving personal privacy issues. The only complete solution is to avoid the risk entirely, but for most people that’s not reasonable or realistic. There is a substantial level of privacy loss required in order to use an online dating app, but many people decide that by today’s social standards, this loss is the ‘new normal’ and acceptable.

Dating apps aren’t unique, and in fact the first three risks listed above are akin to the kind of typical privacy or surveillance capitalism issues you face with any apps, site, or service you use. 

But, as with most ‘new normal’ privacy loss, there is optional privacy loss you don’t have to accept because it brings with it the largest amount of personal risk.

  • There is privacy loss and risk associated with having your photos in a dating app, visible by millions of people, but there is *more* risk in having photos that have been used online before and can be found on accounts with more sensitive information.
  • There is privacy loss and risk associated with publishing a short personal bio, but there is *more* risk if that bio includes clues that make it easy to find out your full name, where you work, or where you live.
  • There is privacy loss and risk associated with chatting with strangers online, but there is *more* risk if the form of chat you use or information you share enables the stranger to find you in the real world (before you want them to) or continue the conversation even if you want to end it.

Each of these are examples where there are really two kinds of privacy loss:

  • Reasonable privacy loss – where you get more from the trade than you give up, 
  • Unreasonable privacy loss – where you’re taking a huge risk for very little incremental gain. 

The best path is to accept the reasonable privacy loss and avoid the unreasonable. To do this you need a little knowledge of where the line is, and a bit of discipline to stay on the right side of it.  

Smart Online Dating

In the Priiv app, we help people protect their online dating privacy in a number of ways that you should consider, here are several important examples:

  • Consider a fake name: Some dating apps require you to link an existing social media account or verify your identity in some way, which makes it harder – but not impossible – to use a fake or modified name. If you can do this, that’s a great place to start separating your dating profile from your real life. 
  • Limit data sharing permissions: You can also check your app-level permissions just to limit the massive amounts of data that’s being collected.
  • Use unique photos: Shoot new ones or find outtakes similar but not identical to those you’ve already used in other places.
  • Limit profile details: Don’t unintentionally reveal where you work or live, where you hang out, or who your friends are. Imagine someone reading it wanted to find you in real life – are there good clues? If so, remove them.
  • Remember in-app chats aren’t private: The app company can read them and one day they may get hacked and published online. Careful what you say.
  • Don’t give out your real phone number: Use a burner phone number or private identity app to enable chatting and phone calls when you leave the app. This way you can cut off communications if/when you decide.   

Priiv is an iOS app that helps you manage your personal privacy and security. It helps people to live a safer life online and off. You can sign up to get a preview of our app here.


Original Photo by Pratik Gupta on Unsplash | Edited by Josue Ledesma

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