Privacy & Online Dating: Data Collection And Your Digital Trail

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Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've gotten an earful about the National Security Administration's efforts to monitor your phone calls and online activity. Sure, that's scary stuff, but it's only one piece of the privacy puzzle. What about all the other organizations you're voluntarily giving information to? Just about everywhere you go online, you're leaving a digital footprint and odds are you have no idea who's seeing it.

So, who exactly has access to the personal information you put online?

To answer that question, NPR investigated one of the greatest sources of personal data on the Web: online dating sites. Most users don't hesitate to fill out the lengthy questionnaires on sites like because they believe it's the best way to find a compatible partner. But when NPR sat down with Ashkan Soltani, a digital privacy specialist who used to work at the Federal Trade Commission, he showed exactly how unprivate personal information can be.

Soltani set up a fake account on OkCupid to demonstrate how private companies track what users are doing online. He selected the "Often" options under the questions about drinking and drug use, then launched two software programs - Collusion and MITM Proxy - to get a look at what goes on behind-the-scenes.

The Collision program revealed that almost 50 companies were tracking Soltani's computer as he browsed OkCupid, most of which were either advertising firms or companies that collect data to sell to ad firms. The MITM Proxy program exposed the kind of information those companies were receiving from OkCupid. Some got basic data, like age and gender, but others obtained much more personal details. In fact, least one learned that Soltani uses drugs "often."

Of course, it's not just OkCupid that collects personal data, and every online dating site has an explanation for why they do it. Data collecting, they argue, allows them to personalize their service in order to improve user experience. As you search for dates online, your dating site gets a better idea of the kind person you're looking for. The site becomes "smarter," and its matching algorithm becomes better at refining your results.

To some, it's creepy. To others, it's helpful. What is clear is this: there isn't much that can be done about it, unless you choose the non-option of staying off the Internet completely. All that's left is to think carefully about what data you choose to share, and to remember that private information is rarely private online.