If I’m signing up for a dating website, I usually just smash the “I agree” button on the site’s terms of service and jump right into uploading some of the most sensitive, private information about myself to the company’s servers: my location, appearance, occupation, hobbies, interests, sexual preferences, and photos. Tons more data is collected when I start filling out quizzes and surveys intended to find my match.
Because I agreed to the legal jargon that gets me into the website, all of that data is up for sale—potentially through a sort of gray market for dating profiles.
These sales aren’t happening on the deep web, but right out in the open. Anyone can purchase a batch of profiles from a data broker and immediately have access to the names, contact information, identifying traits, and photos of millions of real individuals.
Berlin-based NGO Tactical Tech collaborated with artist and researcher Joana Moll to uncover these practices in the online dating world. In a recent project titled “The Dating Brokers: An autopsy of online love,” the team set up an online “auction” to visualize how our lives are auctioned away by shady brokers.
In May 2017, Moll and Tactical Tech purchased one million dating profiles from the data broker website USDate, for around $153. The profiles came from numerous dating sites including Match, Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid. For that relatively small sum, they gained access to huge swaths of information. The datasets included usernames, email addresses, gender, age, sexual orientation, interests, profession, as well as detailed physical and personality traits and five million photos.
USDate claims on its website that the profiles it’s selling are “genuine and that the profiles were created and belong to real people actively dating today and looking for partners.”
In 2012, Observer uncovered how data brokers sell real people’s dating profiles in “packs,” parceled out by factors such as nationality, sexual preference, or age. They were able to contact some of the people in the datasets and verified that they were real. And in 2013, a BBC investigation revealed that USDate in particular was helping dating services stock user bases with fake profiles alongside real people.
I asked Moll how she knew whether the profiles she obtained were real people or fakes, and she said it’s hard to tell unless you know the people personally—it’s likely a mixture of real information and spoofed profiles, she said. The team was able to match some of the profiles in the database to active accounts on Plenty of Fish.
How sites use all of this data is multi-layered. One use is to prepopulate their services in order to attract new subscribers. Another way the data is used, according to Moll, is similar to how most websites that collect your data use it: The dating app companies are looking at what else you do online, how much you use the apps, what device you’re using, and reading your language patterns to serve you ads or keep you using the app longer.
“It’s massive, it’s just massive,” Moll said in a Skype conversation.
Moll told me that she tried asking OkCupid to hand over what it has on her and erase her data from their servers. The process involved handing over even more sensitive data than ever, she said. To confirm her identity, Moll said that the company asked her to send a photo of her passport.
“It’s difficult because it’s almost like technologically impossible to erase yourself from the internet, you’re info is on so many servers,” she said. “You never know, right? You can’t trust them.”
A spokesperson for Match Group told me in an email: “No Match Group property has ever bought, sold or worked with USDate in any capacity. We do not sell users' personally identifiably information and have never sold profiles to any organization. Any attempt by USDate to pass us off as partners is patently false.”
Most of the dating app companies that Moll contacted to comment on the practice of selling users’ data to third parties didn’t respond, she said. USDate did speak with her, and told her it was completely legal. In the company’s frequently asked questions section on its website, it states that it sells “100% legal dating profiles as we have permission from the owners. Selling fake profiles is illegal because generated fake profiles use real people’s photos without their permission.”
The goal of this project, Moll said, isn’t to place blame on individuals for not understanding how their data is used, but to reveal the economics and business models behind what we do every day online. She believes that we’re engaging in free, exploitative labor every day, and that companies are trading in our privacy.
“You can fight, but If you don’t know how and against what it’s hard to do it.”
This post has been updated with comment from Match Group.