Background Checks Strengthen Our Most Racist Institutions –– Why Are We Putting Them In Dating Apps?
Written as a collaboration by the #open team, including Amanda Wilson (#open’s co-founder), Gabrielle Alexa Noel, and Rose Bern. This blog is part of a 3-part series on background checks and data privacy.
As we’ve mentioned a few times before, newly proposed legislation has recently urged dating apps to incorporate in-app background checking technologies. Match Group, the company that owns apps like Tinder, Match, and Hinge, unveiled a partnership with Garbo –– a non-FCRA background check that scrapes data from various government databases and attempts to match them up, often leading to inaccurate or incomplete records. As Connecticut Senate Bill SB5 goes into effect on October 1st, many more online dating operators will either incorporate similar technologies, or disclose their own reasons for not wanting to use them.
I’m a Black woman on the #open team –– who authored a book about the internet and social media –– so I’m not only aware of the inherent harms of the United States carceral system, but of tech’s ability to strengthen mass incarceration. We are so used to viewing criminal law, criminal procedure, and criminal courts as sacred and objective that, even after the global movement against police violence that followed George Floyd’s murder, they remain the default solution to every social problem.
Criminal Records Are Based on Information From Police –– But Police Lie
The reality is that police make the law by deciding who and when to stage arrests. Their strategies for policing change based on neighborhood –– and the racial/class distributions living there. Research shows that in Black and Brown neighborhoods, police are primarily focused on interrupting violence, which assumes that Blackness and violence are intrinsically linked. They initiate aggressive investigatory stops, often for minor offenses (i.e. loitering) that white people are allowed to get away with. And they disproportionately expose those communities to verbal harassment and police violence. Affluent white neighborhoods, where more resources for community strength and safety are already allocated, see police operating as responsive service providers instead. Unsurprisingly, Black people in the United States are five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than white people are.
On top of that, prosecutors base charging decisions on information they’re told by police, despite the fact that the police be lying. They lie to extract false confessions –– one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the U.S –– as well as to conduct unconstitutional stop and frisks, conceal misconduct, and achieve convictions via trumped-up evidence. A little over a decade ago, it was discovered that narcotics detectives were falsely accusing innocent people of selling drugs in order to meet arrest quotas, even going so far as to plant evidence. They work closely with prosecuting offices, which then overcharge people to gain more leverage in plea negotiations and improve the odds of getting a conviction. And then judges, as well as structural factors (like mandatory maximums and minimums), determine how someone is sentenced. Racial disparities in prison populations are linked to racial disparities in sentencing for non-violent crimes, with Black men receiving 20% longer sentences than White men for similar offenses.
Background Checks On Dating Apps = Digital Redlining
Background checking tools attempt to scrape through the many different records documenting these interactions and piece together a comprehensive understanding of a person’s capacity for harm. They ignore the fact that laws don’t punish an inherent criminality that exists inside of people, but instead address social problems by transforming people into criminals. And they make it very difficult for the 70 million to 100 million Americans who have some type of criminal record to fully participate in society by reducing them to the offenses they’ve committed (even after they’ve completed a sentence).
A study by the Brennan Center found that people who have been incarcerated see their subsequent earnings reduced by an average of 52%, with an average lifetime earnings loss of nearly half a million dollars.
Mass incarceration’s impact reverberates through entire families and across generations, too. Nearly half of all U.S. children have at least one parent with a criminal record. Additionally, the economic barriers associated with a parent’s criminal record limit a child’s cognitive development, school performance, educational attainment, and earnings and employment once they reach adulthood, according to the Center for American Process.
In that context, implementing background checks on dating apps is yet another way we discriminate against people with criminal records, many of whom are innocent. Tools like Garbo are often unsuccessful at accurately linking people to their criminal records. And as we’ve mentioned before, it’s not regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, so nobody’s guaranteed the right to view their own records or correct inaccuracies. Essentially, users are led to believe that they can base safety decisions on potentially untrue, uncontestable conviction data. But someone’s involvement in the carceral system isn’t a relevant predictor of future harmful behavior. This is especially clear when we consider how infrequently sexual and domestic violence ends in a conviction.
Linking a person’s conviction history to their dating apps acts as a form of digital redlining, preventing marginalized people from occupying popular online communities. Even worse, it further legitimizes a criminal punishment system with origins in settler-colonialism and racial capitalism. So while #open does not currently offer background checks, and I hope we never have to, we must also remain vigilant against their legitimization as a safety tool. Instead, we can build safer online communities through education and trauma-informed moderation.