This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
Since the first Internet dating site, Match.com, went live in the mid-1990s, online dating has evolved to become the standard way that singles meet new people. Today, nearly 300 million individuals around the world use online dating sites. Despite the pervasiveness of this industry, however, many users continue to engage in behaviors that put their privacy at risk.
What is online privacy?
In general, online privacy refers to your ability to safeguard two kinds of information: who you are and what you do. Specific facts that others can use to identify you are called personally identifiable information (PII). This data includes your name, your date of birth, your Social Security number, your address, your phone number, and so on. The information about what you do online includes what searches you perform, which websites you go to, what articles you read, and even what items you buy online.
Whenever you do anything on the Internet, whether it is downloading an app, visiting a website, or using social media, someone is collecting data about you. This means that you are, however inadvertently, creating a significant digital data trail. While the data in this trail might not contain PII, it still enables strangers to track what you do online and construct a clear picture of you.
Why should I worry about online privacy?
While online dating services are constantly innovating to make the Web a safer place to find romance, it still pays to be proactive about protecting your private information. There are many ways that people can use your personal information against you.
For example, someone could use your dating profile as evidence in a lawsuit against you. Even after you cancel your subscription, dating websites often store your profile and pictures in their databases, and depending on the legal situation (which could include divorce or custody proceedings, lawsuits related to employment, and possibly medical-related lawsuits), websites must turn over this information in response to a court order.
Clues for digital stalkers
Another way that your data can hurt you is by revealing your true identity when you are trying to remain anonymous. Photo identification tools like Google Image Search and TinEye make it easy for someone to figure out who you are from your profile pictures, even if you use pseudonyms or other false information to protect your real name. Additionally, if a photo that you post on a dating site exists on another online account, such as your Facebook or LinkedIn profile, then all someone has to do is to compare the pictures to identify you.
While you might not view companies gathering data on you and your online habits as a potential threat to your privacy, this information is often not as anonymized as you think it is. According to Stanford researcher Arvind Narayanan, people can easily de-anonymize the data that websites sell to marketing firms by correlating it with aspects of a person’s public browsing history.
Dating site security issues
To make matters worse, a number of online dating sites aren’t very secure. In 2017, researchers at Kaspersky Lab found that some of the biggest dating sites, including Tinder, OkCupid, and Bumble, had security flaws that rendered their users’ personal information vulnerable to stalkers, hackers, and blackmailers. These flaws could leave users’ names, locations, login information, message histories, and more, exposed.
Researchers from the cybersecurity company Checkmarx recently identified two security problems in the Tinder app. These two flaws combine to help hackers see what photos users are looking at and which way users swipe in response to each picture. Moreover, the researchers asserted that these vulnerabilities weren’t exclusive to Tinder, but were shared by many dating apps.
Or consider the infamous Ashley Madison website data breach in 2015. In this case, hackers stole the following types of personal information from almost 36 million customers:
- First and last names
- Encrypted passwords
- Email addresses
- Partial credit card data
- Street names
- Phone numbers
- Records of 9.6 million credit card transactions
How can I protect my privacy?
Too many people treat online dating like they would any other social media site, but there’s a big difference between sharing personal information with your friends and sharing it with potential romantic partners. To safeguard your privacy when using an online dating site, you should follow these general guidelines:
- Secure your online profile with a robust, single-use password.
- Don’t create a new account by logging in through a social media site like Facebook. Doing so creates a solid link between your social media profile and your online dating one.
- Avoid using the same username that you use for other online services because someone could use it to track you down.
- Never share your full name, address, or place of work.
- Don’t use your regular email address. Instead, get a separate address just for that relationship.
- Use a fake phone number. These are available through apps like Burner, Flyp, and Sideline. You can also set up a proxy phone number with Google Voice.
- Aim to reveal information about your personality, goals, and tastes without giving any specifics that would allow someone to identify you.
- Disable any location-aware features in all dating apps, especially if the sites display your location for others to view.
- Don’t be afraid to say “no” if someone asks you for personal information that you’re not yet comfortable sharing.
- Avoid sending digital photos, which may contain metadata on where and when they were taken. If you must send a photo, be sure to remove any geotag information first.
- Wait a long time before “friending” your new suitor on Facebook. Access to your Facebook network provides an individual with detailed stores of personal information that cybercriminals can misappropriate for online reputation attacks, identity theft, or other violations of your digital privacy. As this MSNBC article suggests, you should wait until you have been dating for a few months, and then friend the individual using sensible privacy controls.
What should I know about dating site privacy settings?
In addition to following the previous tips regarding online privacy, it’s a good idea to shop around and select a service that both meets your needs and features strong privacy controls. All the big online dating services, including OkCupid, eHarmony, and Match.com, feature similar privacy statements that describe how they collect your personal information for the sake of matching you with someone.
Third-party cookies may also track your interactions, and it’s a good idea to opt out of many of these tracking features as you can in your site’s privacy settings. However, the major dating services also offer the following tools to enhance your online privacy while improving your chances of finding the right match:
- eHarmony—If you can’t fathom the idea of meeting a potential suitor without first talking to that person on the phone, you might want to consider eHarmony. The company offers a feature known as Secure Call that lets people call each other safely, without giving away their phone numbers.
- OkCupid—If you want to have strong control over who has access to your profile, consider OkCupid. In early 2011, the service began rolling out a set of very specific filters, designed to address common privacy issues. For example, gay people can block straight people from finding their profiles, and young women can block older men.
- Match.com—Match.com offers a “Private Mode” that keeps your profile hidden from anyone you haven’t communicated with. This lets you select each person who can see you. However, people you have messaged don’t notice anything different when viewing your profile. There’s nothing to indicate that you are invisible to other users.
Should I take my romantic quest offline?
Increasingly dissatisfied by the privacy risks and complications of online dating, some people are turning to the dating techniques of their parents or grandparents. Advice columnists regularly entreat lonely singles of the world to get involved in some activity or a cause that interests them, such as taking a cooking class, volunteering for a charitable organization, joining a book club, or attending special events.
A new breed of minimalistic online services has cropped up to meet this need, offering nothing more than an RSVP service for people of like interests to arrange group meetings in public places. While it’s true that this method will reduce your chances of being algorithmically and instantly paired with Mr. or Ms. Right, it will also help you avoid the headache of having your digital privacy compromised. And because you’ll be meeting people with similar interests, whether or not you find love, you’ll probably make some new friends.
Regardless of which approach you choose, remember that online dating is a very specific niche within social networking, with its own rules and etiquette. As long as you take into account the aforementioned online dating privacy tips, you should be able to safely make that important connection with someone special.