With lockdown shutting down clubs, bars and all the other places you might find love, more and more of us are looking for it online.
Match Group, which owns Tinder, Plenty of Fish, OKCupid and tons more apps, dominates the online dating game. Its standout performer is Hinge – it’s set to triple revenues this year, with an 82 percent growth in downloads.
We know that Facebook and Google profit from our data, but have been slower to realise that dating apps like Hinge – who are loath to disclose how their algorithms work or exactly what they do with our information – do the same thing.
Here are five reasons to delete Hinge.
YOUR MOST INTIMATE INFORMATION ISN’T SECURE
Hinge prides it on using data to find you the perfect partner. It has set up its own data-driven research team, Hinge Labs, and founder Justin Mcleod said to British Vogue its algorithm “gets better and more accurate the more that you reveal your tastes”.
When I selected the app’s “Download My Data” option, it returned everything I hadn't thought twice about handing over: my drug-taking habits, location and dealbreakers in a partner, including religion and ethnicity.
There was also the entire history of messages I’d sent. Once I got over the cringeworthy lines met with silence, I was struck by how much of me Hinge had. A Data Subject Access Request would have revealed even more. But it can take months, and even then the picture of what Hinge collects could be incomplete.
Because there’s what we know we give them. Then there’s the stuff we don’t know. Inferred data, for example, is information not directly collected but deduced from other choices; like intelligence, physical attractiveness or personality type.
“You're never quite sure what you're getting into,” says Ravi Naik, the legal director of data rights agency AWO. “It's a bit like a relationship, ironically.”
Most companies that collect or manage user information outline what they do with your data in privacy policies, but these are unfailingly nonspecific and confusing, even for experts. Hinge is no different. (Match told VICE UK: “We abide by GDPR and all applicable privacy laws.”)
The difference, though, is that Hinge and other dating apps collect information that – in a family or community opposed to your dating choices – would be dangerous if public. Hackers could even use that information to access emails, spoof your identity or blackmail you.
But security flaws have been exposed in other Match apps. Details of 70,000 OKCupid users scraped by researchers in 2016 are still public. This year, more than 70,000 Tinder photos of women were shared online.
HINGE GIVES YOUR DATA TO OTHER DATING SITES
Given the security flaws in other Match apps, this is a worry. Hinge doesn’t say which data is shared or how it’s stored, and didn’t reply to questions about how much could be exposed if Match – or another of its apps – were hacked.
“It is hard enough for one company to guarantee safeguarding your data,” says Jean-Philippe Taggart, a senior security researcher at Malwarebytes. “The surface of attack for 45 companies is exponentially bigger.”
HINGE SHARES YOUR DATA WITH THIRD PARTIES
Businesses that can’t do everything in-house often employ other companies, known as third parties, to help them function. Hinge shares your data with a bunch of those “to help us operate and improve our services…[and] assist us with various tasks, including data hosting and maintenance, analytics, customer care, marketing, advertising, payment processing and security operations”.
Hinge’s privacy preferences name 10 third party marketing services and trackers – tools that help companies monitor your activities around the web. Users can currently opt out of two of them. (Match told VICE UK this new privacy preferences tool “sets a new standard in the dating industry, providing users even more transparency and privacy controls”).
Neither Hinge nor Match answered questions about whether they share user data with the eight others, and some of those Hinge uses are made by Facebook and Google – not exactly bastions of privacy themselves.
(Don’t forget that you can sign in to Hinge via Facebook, too. By doing this, you’re not only giving Facebook more data, but also “centralising your means of identification, which means that if your Facebook gets hacked” – which happened to 50m accounts two years ago – “you're badly screwed,” says Privacy International technologist Eliot Bendinelli.)
Match assures us on its website that it doesn't share data between apps "for commercial purposes”. But GDPR regulations state that brands have to demonstrate – not just describe – healthy data handling practices.
Besides Hinge saying it may share “limited information on you… to [unnamed] advertising partners,” we have no real idea if there are other third parties getting our data and what they do with it. Do they work with third parties and advertisers? How is their security?
“The more the data is shared,” says Taggart of Malwarebytes, “the greater the chances that it will fall into the wrong hands.”
HINGE COULD GIVE YOUR INFO TO POLICE
But Hinge has “no say over what the warrant is about”, says Jo O’Reilly, a digital privacy advocate at ProPrivacy. It is highly unlikely, she adds, but what if police wanted to find out about recreational drug use or people breaking lockdown?
Then there is what authorities might do with the information. “In the past, when women have come forward to allege that they have been raped or attacked, the courts have used messaging history against them to demonstrate that they were arranging to meet with men and flirting," says O’Reilly.
Neither Hinge nor Match replied to questions about this.
HINGE MAY NEVER DELETE YOUR DATA
Hinge’s tagline, "designed to be deleted", doesn’t apply to your personal information.
Even when you delete your account – make sure you don’t just bin the app on your phone – your info may be “kept for [their] legitimate business interests”, whatever that means.
Even those of us who know that Hinge hoovers up data can fall into the trap of thinking we understand the deal – a straight trade: personal information for matches.
“The app manages to make us believe that it has nothing to hide, and above all that it is needed for us to really find someone, that it is the price to pay,” says Jessica Pidoux, a doctoral assistant at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL), who researches dating apps and their algorithms “Even though, because of how opaque everything is, we don’t know how it works.”
The truth is we’re unaware of what we’re giving up and how it's used. We’re seeking romance inside a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship.
“You start to think of Match as this huge data conglomerate,” Naik concludes. “They're not a dating app. They're a data app.”