Online dating and privacy: Will it ever be a match?

A privacy expert’s guide to online dating
An illustration of a heart-shaped padlock.

On February 14, sweethearts will exchange cards, flowers, candy, and more in the name of St. Valentine. Yet, to this day, no one is sure of his true identity.

For the rest of us, dating in the modern day, our identities are not so secret. The truth is, whenever you sign up for a dating app, chances are you’re relinquishing your privacy to a significant degree. You’ll find the love of your life, they promise—for the simple price of some of your most intimate details.

[Want stories about privacy (and maybe love)? Sign up for the ExpressVPN newsletter.]

And these apps aren’t just sharing your information with swiping singles. A recent report released by the Norwegian Consumer Council reported that popular dating apps—including OkCupid, Grindr, and Tinder—are disclosing “dating choices and precise location to advertising and marketing companies.” Worse still, OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, and Jack’d have all reported data breaches in the past year.

If online dating services can’t keep you or your information safe, how can you protect yourself?

1. Sign up with a throwaway email address

There are plenty of reasons you might not want to give out your real email address when signing up for a dating service. Maybe you just hate being bombarded with dating-related missives, or perhaps you don’t want your email address linked to your profile on the off chance their database is hacked. Regardless, it’s a good rule in general to use a burner email for any service that you don’t fully trust. And no matter how easy or convenient it seems, definitely don’t sign up using your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram credentials if you can avoid it.

2. Take your conversation outside the app

This advice may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but as long as you are using an end-to-end encrypted messaging app that doesn’t require you to give out your personal phone number, it’s actually a safer bet. The alternative—having all your chats saved on a dating app’s servers—gives the service free rein to scan all your private messages and puts your conversation history at risk of being leaked in a data breach.

Multiple dating apps have also been found to be lacking encryption, including Tinder until a year and a half ago. This means that others on the same network as you (say, your company’s IT department if you’re on work Wi-Fi or someone on the same cafe hotspot) could possibly uncover whose profile you’ve viewed, which way you’re swiping, and even what photos and messages you’re sending.

Some secure messaging apps that you don’t need to hand out your phone number to use include Telegram and Wire. If you have a preferred service that is phone number-based, like Signal, The Intercept has a full guide on how to create an account without revealing your personal phone number.

3. Limit how much location data is shared

In 2017, a journalist asked Tinder for her data and received 800 pages of information about her most personal information. That is horrifying but unsurprising, considering that most dating apps are collecting all sorts of information as you swipe, type, and meet up with online matches. But most concerning of all is the continuous, real-time location data that dating apps collect. The privacy risks of this are so serious that the U.S. government is actually forcing the Chinese firm that owns Grindr to sell the service by June 2020 over national security concerns, possibly including the potential that Beijing could track American officials’ movements or influence them based on their dating habits.

Even if you’re not a national security risk, check the privacy settings of your dating app and limit access. If possible, use dating apps via the website on your desktop computer, rather than a mobile app. This will help limit the location data that the service can gather. Companies also use details like IP addresses to figure out the location of their users, so using a proxy will help to hide your physical location by obfuscating your real IP.

Most importantly: Don’t do online what you wouldn’t do offline

Dating apps are often compared to bars full of singles. If that’s the case, those bars are run by some real creeps. Would you let a bar manager follow you everywhere you go? Or entrust them with all your private photos? Wouldn’t you prefer to step outside to chat if you saw that the bartender and other patrons were recording all your flirty conversations?

Whether at a bar or online, dating requires you to put yourself out there a bit—but you should have control over how much. Take stock of where your online dating data is going, who has access to it, and how it may be used. And if all else fails, take your romantic quest offline like the remaining 61% of couples.

Vice president, ExpressVPN