Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Dat(a min)ing Game

-- By JustinFlaumenhaft - 16 Apr 2022

The Love Monopolists

Dating (accompanying a romantic interest for food, drinks, or entrainment) is a well-established ritual of modern life. In Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel argues that modern dating emerged in the 19th century. According to Weigel, before the modern dating paradigm began, courtship was supervised in homes, synagogues, and other non-commercial spaces. This provided little privacy from the prying eyes of relatives: as one observer of pre-1900s courtship rituals reflected, “privacy could be had only in public.” Modern dating, Weigel writes, took “[the dating] process out of the home, out of supervised and mostly noncommercial spaces, to movie theaters and dance halls.”

Increasingly, however, dating is supervised—supervised by online dating applications.

The worldwide online dating pool includes hundreds of millions of users. In the United States, approximately 30% of adults and 49% of individuals aged 18-29 have used dating sites or applications. And a recent study of heterosexual American couples found that 39% met online, making it the most common way of meeting among the respondents. Dating now not only takes places in commercial settings, but is intermediated by commercial forces. Online datings applications have become the primary matchmakers of modern society.

Match Group, Inc. has taken over much of the responsibility for pairing couples. The conglomerate owns over 40 distinct online dating apps—including Hinge, OKCupid, and Tinder—and upwards of 60% of the online dating market share. Some commentators argue that this level of consolidation amounts to monopolization of the dating app industry. But such arguments elide a more serious issue: who are we letting pull the strings of people’s romantic lives? And what are they doing with this power? Match Group may have monopolized the dating industry, but the dating industry is on a quest to monopolize our collective search for love.

Social Media Symbiosis

Students of this course will not be surprised to learn that there are deep connections between large social media companies and popular dating apps. The relationship between these entities is symbiotic. For example, in 2015, leaked Facebook documents revealed that the company granted Tinder, Hinge, and other popular dating apps special access to Facebook user data, even amid policy changes that excluded third party apps from this kind of access. Meanwhile, these same dating apps often ask users to build their profiles around their existing social media accounts. Social media accounts have become part of the price of admission to the online dating scene.

The consequences of this shady symbiosis are apparent in the 800-page-long document a Guardian reporter received upon requesting her personal data from Tinder. The document included, among other things, extensive information about her Facebook activity and other social media use. This disturbing dossier underscores the fact that online dating apps are not distinct from social media companies, but continuous with them. They are another appendage of the PwMOG? , charged with overseeing, recording, and manipulating the most intimate aspects of users’ personal lives.

The Privacy Nightmare of Online Dating Apps

Dating apps have proven to be profoundly untrustworthy stewards of their users’ personal information and romantic lives. Grindr, a dating app geared toward the LGBTQ community, is among the worst. This is especially troubling given the discrimination and hostility that the LGBTQ community faces around the world—merely being outed as a user of the app could be dangerous. Nonetheless, in 2018, Grindr faced criticism for sharing the HIV status of its users with third party companies, which the company fully admitted to doing. It shared that data along with information about users’ phone, email, and GPS location.

Additionally, shortly after the HIV status controversy, Grindr was sold to a Chinese gaming company. The US intervened and forced the gaming company to sell Grindr, for fear the acquisition would provide China with fodder for blackmailing US citizens. However, in the short time before this intervention, the company had already provided its engineers with access to user databases for several months.

Thus, Grindr not only collected users’ HIV statuses—a fact which alone is alarming— but also kept track of users’ locations and contact information, shared all of this information with third parties, and, by selling itself to a Chinese company, placed its user data firmly within reach of the Chinese government. This is just one of several privacy abuses perpetrated by Grindr, which has received multiple fines for mishandling user data. And Grindr is just a small node in the vast network of online dating.

The Indignity of Online Dating Apps

The way that dating apps engage users is particularly dehumanizing. The typical app has users swipe through a catalogue of thousands of other humans. Every profile is an advertisement of sorts. Users are the product—and they are also the marketers of the product. Moreover, user interfaces are designed to make the app feel like a game to keep users swiping. This set up encourages users to treat others without dignity: to view dating as online shopping and fellow daters as replaceable commodities.

And yet, millions of people (including nearly 50% of young adults in the US!) opt into this dystopian marketplace. They share their most intimate secrets while the dating apps take notes behind the one-way mirrors of smartphones. Why does anyone stand for this, let alone voluntarily participate in it? Part of the answer, probably, involves “convenience.” Dating apps provide users with a streamlined catalogue of options made more or less instantly available.

But an additional factor to consider is the deeply imbedded drive for connection shared by most human beings.The desire for emotional and sexual companionship has propelled the propagation of our species and tied us together. It is these primal and powerful drives that the dating apps prey upon. As more and more people join dating apps, and fewer meet outside these walled gardens, the potential for connection on these apps increases, and their magnetic pull grows stronger.

[Word count: 989]

A substantial improvement. The last two paragraphs are where the best chances for further improvement lie. "And yet" doesn't seem sufficient. Does "convenience" here mean commodiization? If so, is "desperation" the better word?

Of course, the absence of a conclusion is still striking. If the matter is as troubling as you say, why is there no discussion of what to do about it?

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r10 - 11 May 2022 - 12:07:36 - EbenMoglen
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