Dating apps are collecting more of your information than you think

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For people in search of lasting relationships on dating apps, there’s nothing quite like matching with someone who wants to know the real you.

That kind of curiosity could signal keen interest, or at the very least, a certain social grace. But those potential partners aren’t the only curious ones in the mix: The apps you may have used to meet them might be just as hungry for your personal information.

So say researchers at the Mozilla Foundation’s Privacy Not Included project, who updated reviews of 25 of the most popular dating apps out there based on their user privacy practices, data breach track records and more. The result? 22 of those apps — including popular options like Tinder, Grindr, OkCupid, Hinge and Bumble — received the team’s “Privacy Not Included” warning label.

Those labels mean stay away, said Zoë MacDonald, a researcher who worked on the project, though she conceded that’s easier said than done.

Among other things, Mozilla’s researchers found that 80 percent of the apps they reviewed may share or sell your personal information for advertising. That’s nothing new for these kinds of companies, but it feels especially lousy because they so ardently want you to pay for additional features anyway.

Meanwhile, Jdate, Christian Mingle and EliteSingles — specialty dating services all owned by a company called Spark Networks — specifically note in their privacy policies that they may collect “sensitive” information, including your political affiliation, union memberships and your “sexual preferences and experiences.”

References to sex pop up in privacy policies from time to time, said MacDonald, but seeing a company mention collecting information about specific sexual experiences was a new one for the team.

Spark Networks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The nature of these products means you’re going to share a lot of personal information about yourself, and of course the dating apps say that you share that information in service of finding someone,” MacDonald said. But they “take more information than just what you’re conscious of sharing” and then use that information for purposes that aren’t going to help you find a partner.

One particularly strange example: If you’re a Coffee Meets Bagel user looking to break the ice with a match before meeting up in person, you could use the app’s video chat feature. That is, if you’re okay with the company collecting “the content and information you make available using our video chat feature.”

(The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In fairness, Coffee Meets Bagel’s privacy policy only says it “may” collect that information — hardly a definitive statement of intent. Other companies judiciously sprinkle “mays” into their privacy policies, too. But MacDonald said you probably shouldn’t seek much comfort in the vagueness of this language.

“Whenever we see that a company is allowed to do something, or may do something, or even leave the door one crack open to do something, we have to assume the worst, ” she said.

Naturally, the people behind these apps don’t all agree with the researchers’ take.

“We unilaterally and purposefully limit the types of data we use for advertising purposes,” said a spokesperson for Match Group, which owns Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid. “In particular, we do not use sensitive data, such as sexual orientation, racial or ethnic origins, religion, or precise geolocation data for third-party advertising.”

Data privacy concerns like the ones Mozilla raised aren’t the only reason some people are turning away from dating apps. In addition to privacy issues, harassment and scams abound. About 40 percent of dating app users in North America have encountered a scam, and 20 percent have fallen for one, according to estimates from cybersecurity company Kaspersky.

In some cases, people revolt.

Users of apps including Tinder, Hinge and the League sued owner Match Group in February over what the lawsuit called a “predatory” business model — allegedly hiding potential matches from users and pressuring them to pay for premium features.

The apps encourage addictive behavior, the plaintiffs claimed, keeping users swiping in a hunt for romance that feels increasingly like a video game.

Match Group called the lawsuit “ridiculous.” But anti-dating-app sentiment has spread beyond a small group of litigious users. Nearly half of dating app users say their experience has been predominantly negative, according to research from Pew Research Center. Services that forgo swiping and messaging in favor of in-person meetups are gaining popularity in larger cities.

For some people, however, in-person dating events might not be feasible. And asking someone to stop using dating apps over privacy concerns is like asking someone to stop driving a car for the same reason, MacDonald said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Even if you can’t give up your dating apps entirely, it’s worth taking a moment to read the reviews for the ones you rely on. You’ll get a fuller sense of the kinds of data these companies want from you and what they might do with it once they have it.

Smarter ways to use dating apps

After all that, if dating apps still feel like the least stressful, most effective way for you to make connections with new people, then go forth and flirt your heart out, but MacDonald has a few things you should keep in mind.

Treat your dating profile more like your LinkedIn. “Just understand that anything you share may be public information,” she said. “Share a little bit less, and lock down what you share.”

Let your device help protect your data. iPhones and Android devices give you the option to prevent apps from knowing your precise location or accessing your entire photo library. Use these to your advantage. You may also have the option to tell apps not to track you as you poke around on the web or in other apps, which can help safeguard your activity.

Limit your exposure. Don’t log in to your dating apps with your social media accounts, since this can give companies a way to access some of the information you’ve shared there. And resist the urge to respond to prompts from dating apps that encourage you to share more (and different kinds of) information.

Tatum Hunter contributed to this report.

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