Why Should Dating App Users Pay For Safety Features That Don’t Actually Work?
by Maile, Director of Product
Recently, we explored how new laws calling for dating apps to background check users have been proposed in Connecticut and Utah, with one in Connecticut successfully passing in the House and Senate. This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts covering the harms of implementing criminal background checks in digital spaces, written by members of the #open team. While we’ve focused so far on the data privacy implications, it’s important to also consider how charging for background checking technologies contributes to a culture in which women and other marginalized groups are expected to buy their own safety, instead of being meaningfully protected online.
As a millennial woman, I am well-acquainted with online dating, as well as digital safety practices. I’ve had people ask me many times, “aren’t you afraid to meet a stranger from the internet?” And truthfully, at times it can be nerve-wracking but taking particular precautions has always helped me to feel safer: meeting at a public place, letting friends know where I was and who I was with, ensuring I had my own transportation to and from the date. All of these are simple but effective ways I mitigate the risks of meeting strangers in person.
New legislation is urging dating apps to implement background checks to ‘improve’ the safety of users. Tinder and other Match group apps have already started to offer this additional check, but I’m not sure that this is the answer to lowering sexual assault rates – the system has obvious, glaring faults.
The first issue is the accuracy of the background checks provided. Currently, Tinder is using Garbo to provide their checks. Rather than being an actual background check service, Garbo is a service that takes info from multiple database sources and is known for having inaccuracies or missing information. Combine that with the stats surrounding the under-reporting of domestic and sexual violence and it’s questionable that these background checks actually provide solid, objective information to accurately assess risks of meeting up. Instead, Garbo provides a false sense of security for those who are using its service.
Another big issue with the introduction of these checks is the idea of monetizing/selling safety. Tinder currently includes four background checks with their premium memberships, or non-premium members will get two free background checks and then can purchase additional checks separately. Asking dating app users to pay for this service seems unethical if the overall goal of implementing the checks is user safety – are those users who don’t have expendable income to spend on these checks any less deserving of ‘safety’ than those who can pay for more?
Women are constantly marketed products to spend money on which claim to provide safety – necklaces that send your emergency contact a message when pressed, pepper spray keychains, hair clips that can cut a zip-tie; the list is endless. But while manufacturers profit off of women’s very real fears of assault, little is being done to actually reduce violence against women. Asking app members to pay for a service that is meant to keep them safer seems like another one of these products that asks women (and other marginalized identities) to pay for their safety rather than providing them with an environment where they can actually be safe.
In the event that a member does complete a background check and finds problematic information, it is unclear what steps the dating app will take. There are many stories of users reporting instances of violence or sexual assault to Tinder/Match group who then continue to see their attackers remain in the app. According to ProPublica, “the lack of a uniform policy allows convicted and accused perpetrators to access Match Group apps and leaves users vulnerable to sexual assault.” Employees of these apps have mentioned that they do not receive adequate training on how to handle these situations, so what’s the point if the app fails to act on the background checks they are selling to their users?
On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer that offering background checks could provide additional safety to women while dating, but don’t let that fool you into a false sense of security.
As reported by The Verge: “….while background checks can be a helpful tool, you shouldn’t just trust someone because an app gives them the all-clear. Match Group says that Garbo’s results are nuanced…there’s no guarantee they’ll catch everything. It’s always best practice to let a few people know when you’re going to meet up with a stranger and give them some sort of time window when you expect to be home. And if the vibes are off, either take extra precautions or skip the meetup entirely.”
Dating apps should lead with consent and safety education, rather than contributing to a culture of hypersurveillance and mass incarceration, and charging users for it. We already know how conviction data is inherently skewed against Black and Brown communities. Instead of leaning on that data to determine if a user is ‘safe’, #open takes reports of misconduct, abuse, violence, or theft very seriously. Depending on the nature of a report, users will receive either a timely response directly from a member of our team, or from an on-call expert in working with trauma survivors.
And we hope, as our community grows, our safety features will too. In addition, we will continue to use our platform to educate our community about safety, consent, and other valuable topics. Check out our Youtube channel for our #openEd video series.