‘Don’t Pay For Your Date With Your Data’: An Investigator’s Analysis Of Privacy And Dating Apps

Phoebe Waters 14 Feb 2022

Dating apps are increasingly popular ways to meet your perfect match – but just how much can other users find out about you – and what are the apps themselves doing with your data? Our Associate and senior investigator Phoebe Waters explores.

Data isn’t saucy. But it’s source-y. The extent and wide-range of information that can be shared on a dater’s profile is mindblowing. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I conducted a small survey of friends and colleagues who are familiar with the ins and outs of these apps and began to look at this world of online dating through an investigator’s eyes. My aim is not to deter anyone from starting a romance with a swipe, but to advise caution with how much data you broadcast to protect your privacy, security and reputation.

Privacy: How much information are users sharing?

“Vitals”, the details users are asked to provide to open an account on these tech matchmakers, include but are not limited to name, gender, age, height and location. These are all identifiers that an investigator looks for (with the exception of height, at least not until surveillance is needed) in order to build a picture of someone using open source intelligence techniques. And one of Hinge’s most recent “vitals” is offering whether you have been vaccinated or not.

It’s not just these statistical details that you’re invited to share – date-hunters are also asked to include ‘virtues’ on most apps surveyed, such as place of work and job title, educational level, location of university, hometown, and religious and political beliefs. Considering the definition of ‘virtue’ is behaviour showing high moral standards, it would be ironic if an app user was taken advantage of by a bad actor who was showcasing their own virtues, or collecting other users’ details on this.

Of course, people can hide as much information as they want. In many of the apps, you only have to provide the bare minimum to have a profile (name, age and height)– although from my research, the majority of users give away much more than that.

Security: Who can see your information?

Unlike some social media platforms, you must have your own profile on the dating apps to be able to see others’ information. However, only a handful require ID to open an account, which means that fake profiles are likely highly interwoven throughout these virtual hunting grounds. Verification is an option on some of the apps, with your profile showing a tick (similar to official accounts on Twitter and Instagram) to prove that you have verified your identity, but this is voluntary.

Written prompts invite users to share more detailed information, such as ‘I know the best spot in town for…‘ and on Bumble ‘after work you can find me…‘. As someone who manages the collation and assessment of intelligence for a living, paired with a first name and an age, I know these potential location insights can give away a plethora of further details by a deep web dive and really do put your privacy and security at risk.

Despite there being distance parameters on most apps, it would also be decidedly easy to pinpoint someone combined with any other ‘vitals’ provided. Currently, there aren’t search capabilities on these apps (this would be a field day for the suspicious out there) but if a user wanted to find an individual in a specific location, for example, Canary Wharf, it’s entirely possible to do so. A user would choose ‘minimum distance’ which is often only 1 mile, whittle down the options by choosing a range (which is as detailed as a 1-year age gap on Hinge and a 4-year age gap on Bumble), and flick through the options until they find their subject. You can also narrow search results down further by ethnicity and/or religion (although on Bumble you must pay for a Premium account to view this latter detail).

For your safety, it is also important that you think about the backgrounds in the photos and videos that you use on these apps. Half a road sign, a certain era of building, or even background household objects could give a lot away about your location or wealth, things you might not want to share widely. This is especially relevant seeing as all information that you share via these dating apps is visible whether you match with someone or not (it is only the function of conversing with them that is gained through ‘matching’). What’s more, unless you un-match or delete your account, this information is saved and easily accessible to former matches.

We haven’t even mentioned the other platforms that dating apps connect with yet, and from which your data could be drawn. For example, on Hinge, you can link your Instagram account, which means that potential suitors – who you haven’t matched with yet – can see the first 21 pictures on your feed. Apple ID, Facebook and Spotify can all be connected to various dating apps, meaning that you could be sharing your music taste, mutual friends and family photos with someone you might never meet (and have definitely decided you don’t want to). Apps may also share your information with third parties, such as affiliated advertisers, partner companies and others – it’s a good idea to take a look at the privacy policies of the platforms you’re signing up to.

Reputation: What does your profile say about you?

Not only is it a concern that so many details are shared from a data privacy point of view, but also in terms of self-reputation management. Users are invited to share ‘vices’ in one app, including admitting whether you are into drugs (through the option of including various icons) drink and smoking with the options ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘prefer not to say’. Confirmed by one of my interviewees, this information is available to view on someone’s page before you match with them. Apparently, it is even possible to cut down your date options by only choosing people who indulge in these past times. With videos and voice notes also an option to include, it’s vital to ensure these are things you’d be willing to share with anyone – including a potential employer. Cutting back on what details you share hopefully won’t curtail your love at first swipe, and users should be conscious that others may not want to share so much information publicly.

Dating apps: A new frontier?

We may be moving in the right direction. Now, some apps have taken steps to improve security and privacy, such as introducing an incognito mode, which means users can’t see your profile unless you’ve ‘liked’ them. One app, Thursday, requires minimal personal information, and matches are only available on a Thursday (and for 24 hours), meaning no one can hold on to your details on that platform. Further, the platform hires venues as safe spaces to take that date offline. Whilst these developments show that apps are becoming increasingly aware of the safety concerns of using their platforms, they don’t necessarily solve all the issues, and so whilst they progress it is best to be over cautious with what exactly you share and choosing your publicised details carefully. If the app you’re using doesn’t feel safe, explore other options, and remember that there are plenty more phish in the sea.

Clearly, people share an alarming amount of personal information lot when looking for their soulmate, and these heartfelt quotes, candid photos and meaningful emojis – ‘data’- are gold dust for bad actors, the apps themselves and their affiliated advertisers. If it seems a step too far that Facebook might be privy to your perfect date, you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with these popular apps, or at the very least, think twice about what you share on them in the heat of the moment.