UW Graduate School

How to maintain privacy while online dating

Camille Cob

Camille Cobb, PhD candidate, Computer Science & Engineering 

“Privacy in online dating is super personal,” says Camille Cobb, a Ph.D. candidate in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, whose research looks at privacy in web-based social apps. “For me to preserve my privacy, I may need to take different precautions — based on my name, my facial features, and all kinds of things — than you do.”

Camille recently completed a study that surveyed users of dating apps including Tinder, OK Cupid, Bumble, and more, and used open-ended survey questions to learn about how they decide what to share on the site, their goals in using it and their experiences with online dating.

Since it’s cuffing season — the (supposed) time of year when single people scramble to “settle down” — we asked Camille for tips to help online daters protect their privacy while they’re searching for a soul mate.

The first step to assessing your privacy is to Google yourself based on the information in your profile and see what comes up. Remember that from your age, a person can extrapolate what year you graduated high school or college, and that information coupled with your name can yield a lot of results.

Camille’s solution? The dating app may allow you to hide your age, although some, like Tinder, will make you pay for it (the most basic service is free). You may also consider changing your name on Facebook, perhaps to a nickname or a middle name, to make it harder to find you.

Consider using a Google voice number when giving a phone number to a potential date, Camille says. This is especially savvy if the area code of your cell phone is different from where you live now: say, it’s the area code associated with the town you grew up in. Giving your potential match this area code may allow them to find where you went to high school, news from your hometown, and the like. (Yikes.)

As important as what you put on your profile is who you allow to see your profile, according to Camille. Yet it’s really hard to anticipate who will see your profile, she adds.

In this case, the best defense is a good offense. If there’s someone you really don’t want to see your profile — your boss, perhaps, or an ex, or an aunt — many of the apps will allow you to hide your profile from them. But you have to be proactive in finding that person’s profile and blocking them, Camille says. And be warned, some of the apps make you pay for this feature.

For most people, it’s not a goal to remain anonymous on these sites, Camille says. To some extent, being able to find information on a potential match through Facebook or another social media site helps to confirm they’re a real person and makes users feel more comfortable in agreeing to a date.

“There’s an expectation of some reciprocal disclosure on these apps,” Camille says.

And just because someone discloses personal information on their profile, doesn’t mean they’re not concerned with privacy. “They may just have different goals for using the site, and disclosure gets them closer to those goals,” she says.

published November 17