You won’t believe what Tinder or Grindr know about you! What information do dating apps collect about us?
The days when apps know as much about us as we would like or want them to know ourselves are long gone. A lot of information we don’t have to give them at all. Advanced tracking algorithms mean that even dating apps collect data about us that we have no idea about. Until someone wants to use it or make it public without our consent.
We know of many cases of such leaks from the past few years. The most notorious of these primarily involved Facebook and the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which came into possession of information on millions of female users of the platform. It then illegally used them to target the US election campaign, promoting Donald Trump. There have also been cases of bank customers or erotic sites making their information public. And there will be more and more. As experts warn, the fact that many social networks are free is a delusion. We may not pay for using them with real money, but we give their owners something more valuable — knowledge. Each user is a commodity that can be sold in the form of data to companies that want to target advertising to a specific group of people. And often there’s not much we can do about it, and what’s worse — we’re not sure what actually happens with the acquired data. It’s no different with dating apps.
What do dating apps know about their users?
Let’s start at the beginning. You create an account, add some information about yourself, such as name, location, age or gender. In your description you briefly explain what you are looking for or what kind of person you are. And at the end you upload a photo. Additionally, you select your preferences and start using the app.
It seems that it is not much, but already on this basis you can deduce what you like (animals or travel), how you spend your free time, sometimes even where you work (selfie in a doctor’s coat) and what kind of relationship you are looking for.
Applications, whose creators have the ambition to match people according to their interests, build profiles of male and female users based on the information that they provide or that the application infers about them based on their behavior.
On the Tinder website we can read that what affects our matches is simply… our activity. The algorithm analyzes our behavior, e.g. who we move to the left and who to the right, it checks our preferences and location. But it also prioritizes the active profiles, they are the ones that will be displayed to us first. A few years ago, Tinder used what it called the Elo Score, which rated users on their attractiveness. It did this based on how many people gave a particular profile a swipe to the right versus left. This led to people deemed desirable (“hot”, “good looking”) being displayed only to equally attractive people. Eventually the company abandoned this under pressure from the media and users, but it still groups us according to its own rules.
In fact, data extracted from dating apps can influence what jobs show up for us on LinkedIn, what ads are shown to us online, but also what bargains, discounts, insurance are offered to us. There have been documented situations in the past where social media platforms have mutually exchanged our data. It’s a bit like someone going through our phone without asking, or in the old days a diary where we keep things that others don’t know about and things we don’t want to show the world, and passing it on. Unfortunately, algorithms learn faster than humans and know more about us than we do ourselves, stripping us of our privacy.
You may ask, what’s wrong with seeing an ad in an app. Nothing, if it weren’t for the fact that such ads are usually tailored based on our individual ad profiles, often exploiting our weaknesses and thus manipulating our decisions, whether they involve the presidential election or buying shoes. What if a tailored online betting advertisement attacks a person struggling with a gambling addiction?
In 2017, The Guardian published an article in which journalist Judith Duportail described what happened when she asked Tinder to send her all the data collected about her. In response, she got 800 pages (!) of documents, and yet the application only gives a name, search distance or gender preference. So what Duportail received went far beyond basic information. From the documents she learned, among other things, that Tinder knows exactly what she liked on Facebook, how many friends she has there, that it has information about her photos on Instagram. It also knows the average age of the men she is interested in. They also collected the locations she frequents, facts about her education, work, but also her interests, what she likes to eat, what music to listen to. In addition, Tinder’s algorithm can deduce who we are most likely to write and match with (e.g. with people of what race), as well as which specific profiles are interested in us.
What else does the data serve? It depends on what business model the app has. In 2018, it came to light that the Grindr app gives online data brokers and advertisers information about whether someone is HIV-positive or not. In 2020. The Norwegian Consumer Council published a report comprehensively detailing how this and other “free” dating apps (Tinder and OkCupid) share data with advertising brokers. It also filed a complaint against Grindr and won: the Norwegian data protection authority fined the company nearly €10 million for using users’ sensitive sexual orientation data to personalize ads without their consent.
The information got into the hands of two third-party companies working on the app’s software. Grindr representatives assured that they handed it over under confidentiality and that if a user chooses to put such data in their profile, it automatically becomes public in some way. This is true — users have the option to add such details, but none of them agrees to use and pass them on. Especially since the app is dedicated to the LGBTQ community, which often faces stigma and discrimination in everyday life anyway, and even with theoretical anonymity, there are concerns that a person could be identified by their email address and location.
This is unfortunately not an isolated case. In 2017, Danish researchers published, without anonymization, photos, nicknames and information about the relationship and sexual preferences of 70,000 users and users of the OkCupid app. You can imagine how tragic the data leak from a dating app for non-heteronormative people was in a country where homosexual relationships are banned.
Then there’s the issue of all those details from our lives that we include in conversations. These can be unusual sexual preferences and fantasies or nude photos or recordings. And in recent years it has been happening more and more often that they are leaked without our knowledge and consent. So before we send something to another person, it is worth considering how we would react if it saw the light of day? As the well-known saying goes: “the prudent person is always insured”. It’s worth keeping that in mind, especially until big tech companies start being more closely scrutinized for the safety of their users. Because until we see the scale, it’s hard for us to imagine that all this information about ourselves is given to us for free, without our knowledge and consent.