(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Have you used psychedelic drugs? Would you ever consider an open marriage? Would you risk your life to protest against an unjust government? Would you like your answers to these questions, which have been posed to users of online dating site OkCupid, to be shared with other companies to profile you, or used to match you with registered sex offenders?
If your answer to the last questions are no, two new reports might have you deleting your profiles from major online dating sites like Grindr, Tinder, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish. (Happy Valentine’s Day!)
First came a report in December by Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica that surveyed 1,200 women who had used online dating sites over the last 15 years. The investigation found that over a third of them said they had been sexually assaulted by someone they met through a dating app. While the report cautioned that the survey was not scientific and the results can’t be extrapolated to all people using online dating apps (there are no reliable statistics on how many people are assaulted by people they meet online), if the figure is anywhere near accurate, online dating might be more dangerous than most people appreciate.
As it turns out, Match Group — which owns Match, OkCupid, Tinder, Plenty of Fish and dozens of other dating brands — does not check users on all of its platforms against criminal databases. A spokesperson for the company admitted that “there are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products.” According to the Columbia Journalism Investigations report, “The lack of a uniform policy allows convicted and accused perpetrators to access Match Group apps and leaves users vulnerable to sexual assault.” As I have argued before, checking users against criminal databases wouldn’t solve the problem of sexual assaults; predators would simply create false profiles. But it’s unconscionable that the sites don’t take this basic safety precaution, suggesting a concerning disinterest in the well-being of their users.
If that wasn’t frightening enough, another report, released in January by the nonprofit Norwegian Consumer Council, revealed that sites like Tinder and Grindr share with marketing and advertising companies their users’ exact locations and highly personal information such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and whether they say they've used illegal drugs.
Though the dating apps are transmitting data about users and not their actual names, as the New York Times recently demonstrated, it is astonishingly easy to identify people using their location data on their mobile phones. After all, how many other people travel from your home to your place of work every morning? Regardless of what companies claim, these data points are not actually anonymous at all.
Using answers to questions like these to target consumers with ads also makes people vulnerable to being preyed upon by companies and politicians who will exploit the most personal of information. For example, as McKenzie Funk noted in the Times, someone pegged by online questions as “neurotic” could be targeted with threatening ads warning that Democrats want to take his or her guns away; a person pegged as “introverted” and “agreeable” could be shown a different ad focused on values and tradition. Of course, the audiences for these ads are unlikely to realize that advertisers are using personal psychographic data they had obtained in order to manipulate viewers’ beliefs. Most people answering questions on dating apps are hoping they will provide insights that will help match them with compatible romantic partners — not exploit personality traits to craft messages to sell them deodorant or political ideas.
This Valentine’s Day, maybe think twice — or at least a little harder — before logging on to your online dating profiles. If informed, aware users began to demand responsibility and transparency from their dating sites, I bet those companies would have a change of heart about their privacy and safety practices.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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