This article was originally published by AskMen UK.
If the announcement this week of the AdultFriendFinder hack has frozen you in your love-tapped tracks, you may be wondering if any of your online and app-based dating exploits are safe.
After all, it’s one of the largest data breaches ever recorded, with some 412 million accounts across the globe compromised. It comes after last year’s Ashley Madison hack, which revealed the details of 37 million users of the extra-marital affair dating site.
Let’s face it: in 2016, we are all at risk of a data hack, whether our devices are storing state security secrets, or the phone numbers of three girls we’d love to more than virtually click with. And what, with the NSA ever working its global surveillance project, plus the evidence that even the encryption credentials of https, VPN and 4G are fallible, it’s enough for any man of dignity and a few dodgy internet searches in his browser to retreat into Luddite tactics of only hitting the local pub in want of a date.
Thankfully, there are some workarounds.
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1. Use A Unique Email Address
Out of the AdultFriendFinder hack came the revelation of multiple UK government email addresses used to register accounts. Basics: don’t use your work or personal email address when you register with the site; it takes two minutes to set up a brand new account on Gmail and you know you’re only going to be receiving junk notifications anyway, which you really don’t want sending to your daytime desktop.
2. Hack-Proof Your Password
It’s amazing how many people don’t use top-notch passwords – a Facebook hack this week revealed that a whopping 120,000 people actually used 123456 as theirs. The best passwords contain a combination of letters, numbers and other characters if possible, and are not repeated on other sites. If an app requires a phrase, try to scramble grammatical convention and avoid anything that makes an easily memorable sentence – eschew ‘cat in the hat’ for ‘stable stone going monkey’, for example. You’ve heard it a hundred times, but avoid obviously memorable dates – your birthday, or that of a close friend or relative. You should update your password every 6 months but no more often. Researchers at the University of Carolina found that users who did change their passwords more frequently tended to use variations on a theme of previous passwords, thereby making them easier to hack. Instead, it’s better to create a more complex password which you change less often.
3. Choose An App That Fits Your Privacy Needs Best
Dating apps are divided into two categories – those that use Facebook or LinkedIn to verify your identity, and those that don’t. There are benefits to both.
It’s well established that Tinder meshes so well with Facebook that users can track you down to your Facebook profile in a matter of minutes. For a multitude of reasons (usually associated with your Facebook privacy settings), that’s not desirable for multitudes of people – who wants a potential date checking out when you last updated your relationship status? And what if you don’t want your friends on Facebook to know you’re propositioning a mutual connection, especially when it hasn’t even come off yet?
That’s why an app like BeLinked that verifies you through LinkedIn might be preferable. After all, the only information you’re directly privy to is who your potential paramour has collaborated with during office hours. As CEO Max Fischer explains, “There’s a greater element of accountability with linking through your LinkedIn profile. It can ensure users with plenty of mutual connections are on their most courteous behaviour. But on the other hand, if you mess up, your story might just become the subject of water cooler conversation."
The other option is to use an app that doesn’t require a Facebook account – such as OkCupid or Plenty of Fish. The benefits of this are obvious – greater anonymity, no risk of cross-contamination nor that dodgy photoset from Ibiza 2012 sullying your chances with your shortlist.
Given that these kinds of apps aren’t just drawing info from established profiles, the downside is that they prompt users to input extensive data about their preferences and predilections. Think about it – don’t put anything in a dating app that isn’t already public knowledge, unless you really don’t mind it becoming public knowledge (such as a preference for fly-fishing). You might find yourself pouring your heart out onto the profile page in a way you wouldn’t even do after five shots of mezcal. Plus, with OkCupid, there’s an extensive sexual preferences survey, which most people seem to find entertaining on a lonely Friday night. These kinds of apps give you more control over your privacy, just as long as you exercise some self-control.
4. Avoid Geo-Locating Apps
Finding out that the hottie you’ve been watching for a week walks down your road every evening can add an extra frisson to the possibility of crossing paths. That’s why apps such as Tinder or Happn, which highlight the proximity of your matches, can make the dating game feel that little bit less like roulette. On the other hand, go on a bad date with someone in your locale and it’s a ball-ache to manage the anxiety that comes with worrying if you’ll bump into them ever after.
And then there’s the worst-case scenario – what if you attract a bona-fide Gone Girl who can figure out exactly where you live? Back in 2014, Tinder found itself in hot water when it was revealed that its geo-location method could enable users to be found right down to their latitude and longitude. So if you don’t want to be tracked down to your exact coordinates, choose an app that allows you to stipulate your general location without tracking your movements, such as Bumble, unless you approve otherwise.
5. Beware Of Dating Service Ads
It’s a sad fact that dating sites are awash with fake profiles – many of which have been created by the organisation itself. A 2013 investigation by Panorama found that some dating professionals were actually selling information culled from other online services to purposefully create profiles, which led to an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
But in a sneakier, more complicit move, dating sites can actually create a profile with your data if you click on an ad for their services on a site like Facebook – the click equals consent.
The solution is simple, then – don’t click through to a dating service on a whim. Do your research via Google, and never download an app via anything but the original, registered organization.
6. Choose A Service That Doesn’t Sell Your Data
The major players in the dating industry have extensive and established databases of millions of genuine members. But new services are springing up every day, and as they do, they are often buying their initial database from another company which provides a ‘white label’ database.
What’s more, there’s usually a sub-clause nestled deep in the terms and conditions that informs you that your information will be used by affiliates, and this is how they get around this being a simple breach of your privacy. So how do you find out if the service you’re using is doing this, short of reading all those ts and cs?
Well, stick with the major players: Tinder, Howaboutwe, CoffeeMeetsBagel – or with home-grown or elite start-up apps, such as The Inner Circle or HerSmile, that specifically stipulate they will never sell your data.
7. Avoid Unsafe Subscriptions
Here’s a conundrum. Research done on the user experience of dating services finds that individuals who pay for their products tend to be more invested in making genuine connections. At the same time, any online transaction carries a potential fraud risk, depending on how tight the security is surrounding its operation. So how do you know as user when it’s safe to splash the cash?
Cosmo Currey, CEO of HerSmile explains: “A transaction is safe if it goes through a service that is PSI compliant, a hard-to-reach standard which is generally held by banks and Paypal. Our app uses a PSI – compliant service called Braintree, which is related to Paypal, to process payment for our services. It means that we never hold any user’s credit card information, and that we’re never in danger of leaking or losing that info.”
So you’re looking for authentication of your purchase by your bank, or the use of Paypal. Be wary of any other pro-forma, and look out for reassurance that the service will not hold details of your card numbers or bank account.
Nichi Hodgson is a journalist, broadcaster and sex educator. She is the director of the Ethical Porn Partnership and author of Bound To Me, a memoir that details her experiences as a professional dominatrix.