IAPP-GDPR Web Banners-300x250-FINAL
Data-Driven Dating: How Data Are Shaping Our Most Intimate Personal Relationships

When we talk about Big Data, we mostly refer to large-scale conglomerations of information about our collective behavior, aggregated by governments and big corporations. But there’s another way data have become big: Our interpersonal connections are being infiltrated by data to an unprecedented degree, changing how we relate to one another. A focus on everyday data-collection practices reveals that we are active participants in gathering, interpreting and deploying data—not just passive data points about whom data is collected and aggregated.

Nothing makes the rise of the data mentality clearer than the proliferation of tools for creating and using data in budding romantic relationships. Lulu, an app for young women to anonymously review their male friends, exes and hookups, has recently attracted significant popular attention. Lulu lets female reviewers anonymously select hashtags that describe male associates, from #DudeCanCook to #SexualPanther, which it then translates (via secret algorithm) into numerical ratings. Lulu has over a million users and has especially taken off at colleges. Lulu’s founders describe the app as creating a safe, empowering place for young women to swap intel about which guys are worthwhile—an online extension of sorority girl talk—though the tool isn’t without critics, who condemn its objectification of men and generally creepy vibe. Just as you’d peruse Amazon reviews before a purchase or vet plumbers on Angie’s List, Lulu ratings tell you if the guy you’ve got an eye on is likely to show you a good time.

But Lulu is just one example of how the data paradigm is permeating romance.

Online dating services that rely on matching algorithms are designed to take some of the guesswork out of playing the field. The Spreadsheets app tracks sexual performance using audio and accelerometer inputs. Apps like Textat use sentiment analysis to report on a texter’s level of affection, reducing the need to angstily pore over messages from potential paramours. Some tools aim to minimize risk for specific groups of people: An app for would-be daters in small, genetically homogeneous Iceland taps genealogical records to sound an “incest alert” if a couple shares a common grandparent. Other tools are aimed at more developed relationships: consider the Boyfriend Tracker—a recently banned Android app that let users keep tabs on unwitting partners’ location and communications, the practice of numerical marriage rating in psychotherapy and other emerging “love impact metrics.”

It’s understandable that a market for this sort of data exists. Daters crave information about their (potential or actual) partners; it’s not surprising that the majority of reported misconduct involving NSA data collection has to do with employees checking up on love interests! Dating is a realm in which our vulnerabilities are intimately exposed, both emotional hazards and real dangers to health and safety. There’s a reasonable chance that social data collection, or even the specter thereof, could reduce these risks. It’s been suggested that Lulu-like tools might serve as a collective defense against date rape; more generally, Lulu’s founders proudly report that college guys change how they treat women for the better in response to ratings.

But a data-driven mentality could also affect the emotional foundations of intimate relationships. Reviews and ratings, from Yelp to Netflix, are designed to reduce uncertainty by quantifying the unknown. But the early days of romance are all about what can’t be quantified—gut feelings, the uncertainty of a crush, reading significance into words and glances. When dating becomes data-fied and metrics replace mystery, interactions between fledgling romantics could become more calculated as new social practices develop around monitoring; for instance, some guys reportedly engage in Lulu “ballot stuffing” by asking female friends to give them good reviews. Data can come to displace the need for trust as technology becomes a site for accountability for past actions and a guide for future ones. There’s a fundamental difference between a girlfriend who doesn’t cheat because she respects her partner and one who stays true because she’s afraid of being tattled on by an app.

Monitoring and publicizing intimate behaviors raises red flags for privacy, especially when anonymity limits possibilities for recourse.

Privacy professionals have important roles to play here and should advocate for products and services that consider relational privacy interests as well as legal ones.

By design, tools like Lulu trade off ratees’ privacy in favor of raters’ anonymity, in contrast to other web-based ratings systems that incorporate reputation measures for reviewers. Other issues could arise due to the fixity of data over time paired with the youth of the user base, even though people and their relationships change. (Who among us would want our romantic reputations to be based on our teenage selves?) Still other concerns owe to the likelihood of context collapse and unintended use. For instance, in checking out Lulu before writing this piece, my only male contact with a profile was a younger family member—who surely didn’t anticipate that I’d be perusing the details of his intimate practices in the name of research.

Dating apps illustrate the extent to which surveillance has become an everyday relational phenomenon and data analytics have invaded our most intimate activities. No longer is Big Data just something that states and commercial entities do: The monitoring paradigm penetrates interpersonal relationships, creating new kinds of privacy problems that aren’t easily addressable by law or policy. Privacy professionals have important roles to play here and should advocate for products and services that consider relational privacy interests as well as legal ones.

photo credit: pmorgan via photopin cc

Written By

Karen Levy


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

Latin America Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from Latin America

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Spots Going Fast

With the top minds in the field leading this exceptional program, it's no wonder it's filling quickly. Register now to secure your spot.

Be Part of Something Big: Join the Summit

Registration is open for the Global Privacy Summit 2016. Discounted early bird rates available for a short time, register today!

Data Protection Intensive Returns to London

Registration is now open for the IAPP Europe Data Protection Intensive in London. Check out the program!

P.S.R. Call for Speakers Open!

P.S.R. is THE privacy + cloud security event of the year, and you can take a leading role. Propose a session for this year's program.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»