Privacy & Online Dating: The Freebies

Privacy
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Smart online daters are concerned about their privacy no matter what online dating site they use, but those less familiar with Internet privacy issues might assume that major dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony.com are safer than their free counterparts. Does "free" automatically mean unsafe? Does "paid" automatically mean secure?

EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to defending your rights in the digital world, conducted an investigation into the privacy and security practices of major online dating sites to see just how well they're safeguarding your privacy. Two of the sites they tested, Plenty of Fish and OKCupid, are the Web's most notorious free dating services. How well did they stack up against the paid competition?

Neither Plenty of Fish nor OkCupid uses HTTPS by default. For the less tech-savvy among you, HTTPS is standard Web encryption used to secure websites (often those that allow financial transactions). Without HTTPS, users can be vulnerable to eavesdroppers when they use shared networks like those found in coffee shops or libraries.

EFF also found that neither Plenty of Fish nor OkCupid is free of mixed content, meaning that even if certain elements of the site are generally secured with HTTPS, other portions of its content are served over an insecure connection. Again, it may be possible for an eavesdropper to see the images on a page or other content when the page is not properly secured.

EFF also tested whether Plenty of Fish and OkCupid use secure cookies. A "cookie" contains authentication information that helps the site recognize you and allows for easy access to information in your account. It's cookies that allow you to return to a site and be logged in without having to reenter your password. If the cookies are not secure, an attacker can trick your browser and use your cookies to take over your session with the site.

The last thing EFF tested was whether or not the site deleted your data after your account was closed. Both Plenty of Fish and OkCupid were vague about the details. After looking at the sites' privacy policies and terms of service, EFF could not find a clear description of what happens to a user's data after deleting their account.

Plenty Of Fish says "We keep your information only as long as we need it for legitimate business purposes and to meet any legal requirements," but who knows what that really means? OkCupid says they "may still retain certain information associated with your account for analytical purposes and recordkeeping integrity," as well as for a host of other things.

Things look pretty bad for Plenty of Fish and OkCupid when it's all laid out like that, but how do they compare to other dating sites? Stay tuned to find out...

OkCupid Allows Members to Filter by Body Type

OkCupid
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Are online daters picky about physical appearances? OkCupid thinks so. The company recently launched a VIP service for members where by paying an extra fee, they can choose their preferences for a date's body type.

While OkCupid has garnered some criticism for this bold move, there is plenty of evidence that online daters do care a lot about physical appearances. Pictures play an important role in the filtering process for many daters. The majority view pictures first to see whether or not they want to reach out to a potential date.

"The truth about humanity that maybe people don't want to admit is that an important part of physical and sexual attraction is superficial," Sam Yagan, CEO of OkCupid and also of Match.com told TODAY.com. "If you ask someone, 'Why did you get married?' You'll hear, 'Oh, he makes me laugh' and all that stuff. And that's all true. I'm sure he does make you laugh. You also think he's hot."

The VIP service allows users to choose their preferred body type, whether it's "thin," "athletic," overweight," or even "used up," and are matched accordingly. According to Yagan, he's just saving people the time. "People have strong preferences on body type," he says.

There is a case to be made for those who support the VIP service. Most online dating sites encourage people to post photos for a reason - they want to see what their dates looks like before they send an email or even pick up the phone. There is not really a difference with OkCupid's members, except that they can pay for the priveledge of keeping certain people out of their match list.

Critics maintain that people look deeper than physical appearances when they are hoping to find a relationship and not just a date or hook-up. Sites like eHarmony argue that these types of filters prevent people from meeting who otherwise might be attracted to less superficial factors - such as each other's interests, political viewpoints, or even educational background.

Plus, the filter is subjective. One man might consider himself "athletic" when others see him as "average," skewing the results. A woman might not want to admit she's overweight and therefore lie to avoid being filtered out of searches. Many online daters have already been burned by dates not looking like their pictures. While OkCupid's filters are meant to help the situation, it may cause even more daters to lie about their appearance.

Although OkCupid hasn't released numbers on how many members have joined the VIP service, they admit there's been a lot of interest.

Plenty Of Fish Attempts To Buy True.com

POF (Plenty of Fish)
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Watch out, IAC - Markus Frind may be coming for your crown!

For a long time, IAC (InterActiveCorp) has been the undisputed ruler of online dating. IAC's businesses include Singlesnet.com. SinglePeopleMeet.com, OurTime.com, OkCupid.com, and, last but certainly not least, Match.com. Add it all together, plus IAC's numerous successful ventures outside of the dating industry, and you've got a seriously unstoppable force.

Markus Frind, CEO of Plenty Of Fish, recently attempted to score another piece of the kingdom for himself and push IAC an inch more off its throne. True Beginnings, the Texas-based owner of True.com, entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and is attempting to sell its assets. Frind was poised to gobble the site up, but Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has protested the sale.

Citing privacy concerns, Abbott objected in federal bankruptcy court to the sale of True.com's 43 million member database. "At a time when privacy is an issue of grave concern to so many," he said in a press release, "we are taking legal action to prevent an online dating service from selling more than 2 million Texans' personal information without their consent."

True Beginnings told the court they planned to notify users by email that their personal information would be sold, but Abbott contends that the company must obtain each customer's approval individually first. "The proper course is for True.com and its bankruptcy trustee to seek the customers' permission before selling their private information to a third party," he explained, "and that's exactly what our legal action asks the bankruptcy court to require before the case proceeds."

When signing up for True.com, users are told that their personal data - including phone numbers, passwords, financial billing info, and browsing history - cannot be transferred without their consent. However, Abbot notes, ambiguous language found in the site's privacy policy quietly adds that members' personal information held in the company's database would be treated as a transferable asset in the event the company was acquired by a third-party buyer.

Unsurprisingly, Frind is not pleased with the development. "Who in their right mind is going to buy a dating site with 43 million members if you are not allowed access to those members?" he wrote in a blog post. "This would be like buying twitter but you don't get access to twitters users unless they agree to the sale."

Under the current transfer process, True.com member data will be transferred automatically unless the customer takes direct steps to opt-out. Abbot is instead arguing that customers should opt-in and directly express approval for the transfer of their personal information. Whichever way this goes, it's bound to set a precedent for all future dating site sales.

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 Match.com 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.

Tinder: Does it Help or Hurt Dating?

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A new app that has taken the dating world by storm is Tinder, a modern version of the game "hot or not." With Tinder, users can view the photos of other users along with basic information, and make a decision as to whether or not they want to meet. Swipe left to say no, swipe right to say yes. If you both say yes, you can start chatting and potentially meet in real life.

It's a different kind of experience from traditional dating sites, which makes it appealing to many users. It is easier to set up and easier to meet people quickly, rather than with online dating sites that require answering a questionnaire, profile description, and emails back and forth. With Tinder, you can join and meet someone instantly.

But who is using it? Are men more interested in Tinder because of its hook-up potential? Not really. Forty-five percent of Tinder users are female, and they are actively participating. Most of the users also skew on the young side, which isn't surprising. It is less intimidating to use Tinder than to market yourself on an online dating site, which could seem like more of a commitment for someone who is twenty-one and not really looking for a committed relationship.

So Tinder might be easy to use, but how are people really using it? Is it basically a hook-up app? According to most reports, yes. After all, Tinder was marketed to those people who are looking to meet other singles close by quickly, which feeds into the hook-up culture. But according to company executives and a few media members who have tried it, people can unexpectedly find love, too.

Like other online dating sites, you don't always know who it is you're meeting, and people definitely flake and don't show up, whether you meet via Match.com or an app like Tinder. It seems bad behavior will exist no matter what the platform you use to meet people.

So what does this mean? Traditional online dating isn't going away anytime soon. There are many people interested in long-term relationships, who prefer reading profile descriptions, emailing and a phone call before meeting someone in person.

But if you're out on a Friday night with your friends and you're looking for some excitement? Tinder might be a good way to socialize. Think about it this way. You look at people in a bar and decide who you want to approach. The only difference with Tinder is that their faces are on a screen.

When Does a Date become a Relationship?

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There is a murky time in almost every relationship where you wonder, "are we still just dating, or are we officially a couple?" And while you might want to know where you stand, it can be difficult to bring it up in conversation. After all, things have been moving along so well. Why ruin it with such a serious topic?

But then again, you don't want to waste time. You want to know where the relationship is headed.

So, how do you judge for yourself? How long do you date each other before you have the conversation about making it exclusive?

A recent poll conducted by DatingSitesReviews.com found that most people (54%) consider how long you've been dating the most important factor in determining your relationship status. In other words, the longer you've been dating, the more you can consider yourself an item. The majority of respondents (26%) felt that if you were dating for more than two months, you were in an official relationship. Nineteen percent felt that dating one to two months granted you the right to call it an exclusive relationship. Only 9% felt that two to four weeks constituted some kind of commitment.

When a Date becomes a Relationship

1/1: When does dating someone become a relationship?

Less than 2 weeks 0.00%
2 - 4 weeks 9.00%
1- 2 months 19.00%
More than 2 months 26.00%
When you give or receive a gift 1.00%
Once you say I love you 19.00%
Once sex is involved 15.00%
When you move in together 1.00%
When you meet the parents 1.00%
When you go on vacation 9.00%

Another important factor besides how long you've been dating: saying those magical three words: "I love you." Nineteen percent of respondents felt that when you said these words to each other, your relationship was official.

One interesting finding was that people don't necessarily view sexual activity while dating as a casual thing. Fifteen percent of respondents felt that a relationship was official once they'd had sex. Nine percent felt a relationship turned serious when you went away on a trip together.

Surprisingly, a traditional gage like meeting your date's parents didn't really factor in to most people's opinion of when you become a couple. Only one percent felt that this was proof that your relationship was official.

And for those who date a bit more casually, only one percent felt that the defining mark of an "official relationship" was when you move in together. So, don't keep dating lots of people until you find someone you can share a bathroom with - most of the men or women you date will think you're an item well before that point.

Bottom line: most people felt that the length of time you've been dating is the gage by which to determine whether or not you're in a relationship. So if you've been dating someone for a while without discussing what you both want, then you might want to talk sooner rather than later.