Art Project Exposes The Questionable Practice Of Selling Online Dating Profiles

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As our lives become increasingly inseparable from the internet, concerns about privacy and data security intensify. Numerous companies have fallen short of user expectations in recent years, from the widely publicized Ashley Madison hack in 2015 to the seemingly endless controversies surrounding Facebook in 2018.

Artist and researcher Joana Moll teamed up with Berlin-based NGO Tactical Tech to shed light on data collection in the digital age. Their recent project, titled The Dating Brokers: An autopsy of online love, exposed the shady world of data brokers who sell information from online dating profiles. In May 2017, Moll and Tactical Tech purchased one million profiles from USDate, a company that sells user data to dating services looking to artificially augment their user base, for just $153.

“Purchasing this data exposed a vast network of companies that are capitalising on this information without the conscious consent of the users, whom ultimately are the ones being exploited,” explains the project’s website. “This project attempts to make parts of that network, and how it works, visible to everyone.”

The profiles purchased from USDate came from a range of high-profile dating services including Match, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish and Tinder. Moll and Tactical Tech received usernames, e-mail addresses and detailed personal information about the people behind the profiles, such as their gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, interests, profession, physical characteristics and personality traits. It’s a disturbingly invasive transaction, and even more concerning is the fact that the sale of online dating profiles is a common practice within the industry.

New dating services often purchase profiles to populate their site or app when they launch. Established dating services are also no stranger to trading in profiles; they turn to data brokers to refresh their user base with unfamiliar faces in order to entice new subscribers and retain current ones. These profiles are often sold in “packs” categorized by factors like age or sexual orientation.

Moll contacted various dating services to comment on the practice of selling users’ data to third parties. Most, she told Motherboard, did not respond. USDate replied to say that selling dating profiles is fully legal. A spokesperson for Match Group told Motherboard “No Match Group property has ever bought, sold or worked with USDate in any capacity. We do not sell users' personally identifiable information and have never sold profiles to any organization. Any attempt by USDate to pass us off as partners is patently false.”

Legal or not, it’s an unsavory system. Moll told Motherboard that the purpose of her project is not to shame online daters for being careless with their data, but to educate them about the business models and economic structures that clandestinely influence every aspect of their lives online.

“You can fight, but If you don’t know how and against what it’s hard to do it,” she said.

Learn more about The Dating Brokers project and its findings here.