Parent companies:
Sister companies:

The Dating Brokers: An autopsy of online love

By Joana Moll in collaboration with Tactical Tech. (October 2018)

Profiles for Sale

In May 2017 artist Joana Moll and Tactical Tech purchased 1 million online dating profiles for 136€ from USDate, a US-based company that trades in dating profiles from all over the globe. The batch of dating profiles we purchased included pictures (almost 5 million of them), usernames, e-mail addresses, nationality, gender, age and detailed personal information about all of the people who had created the profiles, such as their sexual orientation, interests, profession, thorough physical characteristics and personality traits. 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. This project attempts to make parts of that network, and how it works, visible to everyone. Where do these profiles came from?

Dodgy Dealings

Exchanging and purchasing online dating profiles is common practice within the online dating industry. The method is frequently used to populate new online dating sites when they first get started. But established dating sites are also continuously trading in profiles – in order to get new faces into their services and thus increase the matchmaking probabilities among their users (and get new paying subscribers). According to online dating experts, there are two ways to acquire new profiles: from so-called White Label Dating Services, or via more shadowy services – what might be called Black Hat Dating.

Origin Stories

USDate, our dating profile dealer, did not disclose the source (or sources) of the profiles we purchased. In order to trace their origins, we looked into the company’s official partners (as they label them on their site). Then we forensically analysed some of the images contained in the dataset we bought: first by doing reverse-image searches of the profile pictures, to see if they appeared on other dating websites; then by examining the metadata of the images. Whilst the first approach didn’t provide enough proof to link the images to a specific source, the latter gave us a promising hint about the original source of the data. Finally, this thread allowed us to obtain compelling evidence about the origin of the profile batch we bought.

Small Fish, Big Pond

The popular online dating service Plenty of Fish (POF) was launched in 2003 in Vancouver, Canada. As of 2017, the company claimed to have 150 million registered users and an average 65,000 new subscriptions per day, making it the second most popular dating site in the US, just after Tinder. In 2015, POF sold the dating site for $575 million to Match Group , one of the biggest players in the global online dating industry. As stated in the site's privacy policy, Plenty of Fish (among other undisclosed third-party companies) actively shares user information (which likely implies user profiles) with its parent company, Match Group and other Match Group businesses. Thus, even though it is not specifically stated in Plenty of Fish's privacy policy, if you have a profile on Plenty of Fish, it is possible that it might be sold to, shared with, or used on other dating services that belong to dating companies like Match Group.

Mix and Match

Match Group's empire comprises more than 130 different websites and apps divided into several different brands, based in countries all over the world, including: Any of the user data or profiles generated within any of the above online dating services could potentially be shared with any of the other Match Group brands, this is not only technically possible, but legally as well, according to the terms of use of the various apps we analysed. Thus, if a user has a Tinder account, his or her profile might be shared with OkCupid, Meetic, Match and dozens of other undisclosed services belonging to Match Group.

Data Oligarchy

Match Group in turn, is owned by an even larger entity,
, a leading US internet and media company. Under IAC's umbrella, Match Group has multiple sister companies, which, in turn, have dozens of sub-brands and hundreds of sub-products. IAC is grouped into 5 main divisions:
and Match Group, (although we found ). According to IAC brands' and sub-brands' privacy policy, user data is shared among all the divisions of the IAC conglomerate. However, Match Group’s privacy policy is not as clear: except for its sub-brand Meetic, which publicly states that it is sharing information with IAC, we could not confirm whether other Match Group sub-brands actively shared information with IAC, despite our attempts to ask them. But based on the fact that other IAC divisions publicly state that they actively share information with their parent company, it's quite likely that Match Group and its subsidiaries do, too.

Invisible Parasites

The network for utilising data from dating profiles doesn't end with IAC and its brands – it extends much further, into countless third-party companies. Tracking users' online activity has become a major business model in the last decade. Put simply, online tracking is the act of collecting data from a user while they are interacting with a digital service, like reading the news online or purchasing something online. Even though online tracking is an established practice, users are often not aware of the number of third-party companies that are keeping information on their online behaviour via trackers. To date, we couldn’t find an official document that lists the third party companies with whom Match Group and IAC are sharing their users' information. However, during our investigation we used some tools that allowed us to identify more than 300 third-party cookies linked to IAC and Match Group businesses that are potentially collecting all sorts of data on user behaviour. And this is only accounting for desktop browser activity – it doesn't even include trackers on mobile apps, which could potentially make the list of third-parties twice as long.

The Tangled Web

Overall we were able to map a network of more than 700 interconnected companies and online services that potentially utilised the 1 million profiles we bought from USDate. Nevertheless, we believe that there are many more undisclosed services that generate value from the dating profiles owned by Match Group. We believe that the $0.57 average revenue per user that Match Group reported in their Q2 2018 Investor Presentation is just a fraction of the user profile's real value. This value is obfuscated by a complex web of other companies and services. This business ecosystem does not just affect the 1 million profiles we bought, this group of individuals is representative of everyone who has ever had a dating profile on one of the online dating services that are owned by companies such as Match Group. As seen in this analysis, the data collected, shared, traded and sold on dating app's users travels far and wide and could potentially be instrumentalised by third-parties for advertising and individualised pricing, but also to restrict your access to health insurance, credit, education and much more. We believe that exploiting this data is questionable because dating profiles might contain intimate and sensitive data on users which, if made public, might have dramatic effects on the user’s lives.

A project by Joana Moll in collaboration with Tactical Tech. Technical development by Ramin Soleymani. Special thanks to Fieke Jansen, Raquel Renno and Christy Lange for their valuable inputs during the course of this investigation.