Your favorite dating site isn’t as private as you think

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As you search online for a soulmate (or a friend) this Valentine’s Day, you might be surprised to hear that Facebook, Google, and a host of other companies may come along for the ride. That’s because these firms are in the advertising business, and tracking what you do — even your visits to dating sites — helps them target ads and reveal consumer habits.

That shouldn’t be all that surprising. As Recode’s Rani Molla has explained, these platforms typically don’t charge for their services because their business models are largely based on the ability to collect user data. Some companies track you on dating sites more than others, too. When the company behind Ghostery, a browser extension that blocks data trackers, studied eight prominent datings sites, including Match and OkCupid, it found that trackers from Facebook and Google were on every single one of them.

Many of these trackers help produce analytics and target ads, and those can give companies a good sense of who you are and your romantic interests. Let’s say you went to a specific page on Match.com, like a community page for Christians or a page about meeting musicians.

“Based on the URL, Match can start building some pretty specific lists from among their own users to target you on Facebook,” Jeremy Tillman, Ghostery’s president, told Recode. “It’s not that Match can just use the information that you generated at Match.com. Every other website that you visit that has the same Facebook tracker — of which 30 percent of the web have — it’s adding to your interest profile.”

Ghostery found that Match had the greatest number of trackers — 36 in total — followed by OkCupid and the 50s-plus dating site Our Time. Meanwhile, the dating social network Badoo had just nine, including trackers from Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Ghostery limited its findings to websites — not these platforms’ smartphone apps — and that some of these trackers are related to the rendering of a site itself, like Google’s font library.

“Google does not build advertising profiles from sensitive data, such as a user’s sexual interests or religious beliefs, and has strict policies prohibiting advertisers from using such data to target ads,” said a spokesperson for Google in an emailed statement to Recode. “Third-party cookies have a variety of uses, from enabling basic site functions such as payment processing and video player embeds to serving and measuring advertising.”

Recode also requested comment from Facebook, but the company had not responded by the time of publication. Recode did hear back from Match Group, which owns Match, Tinder, OkCupid, Our Time, Plenty of Fish, and several other dating services.

“Match Group companies use cookies to provide, secure and improve their services, measure site performance and usage and tailor ads to users’ interests. We do not sell user data,” the company said in a statement. “We understand that nothing is more important on a dating site than keeping personal information personal, which is why, unlike other tech companies whose business models rely on the sale of personal information, ours is subscription-based and reliant on engendering trust and being a great experience for users, NOT the sale of data.”

It’s true that you might pay for upgraded subscriptions for some Match services, but you can use services like Tinder and Plenty of Fish for free.

Tillman says that many of the trackers seen on dating sites are similar to those you might find on an e-commerce platform. Importantly, many of the trackers that Ghostery found are not from the biggest, most familiar companies. Take a tracker like Advertising.com or AppNexus, which also showed up on these sites. It’s difficult to know what information these data trackers are collecting, exactly. While some might just be looking at the URLs you visit, Tillman says other trackers could potentially pick up more sensitive information, like your gender, sexual orientation, and dating preferences.

“Whatever your eyes can read — what you can copy and paste — a tracker could copy and paste into a cookie,” explains Tillman. “Facebook and Google say they’re simply collecting the pages you visit. But if you wanted to — and this is just an example — you could easily pull your profile name, or even the profiles of the names of the people that you’re looking at.”

Ultimately, he says that everyone needs to consider the trade-off between their privacy and the benefit of making this data available to companies. But if you really are fine with targeted advertising infiltrating your love life, perhaps this Valentine’s Day will mean more cookies than chocolate.

Update: This post was updated to include a statement from a Google spokesperson.

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