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Online dating: Your profile's long, scary shelf life

Your online dating data can be used to sell you additional services, lure advertisers or bolster a lawsuit against you.

By Robert L. Mitchell
February 13, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Two years after meeting your one true love, you find yourself embroiled in a nasty divorce. During the proceedings, your spouse claims that you misrepresented yourself right from the beginning, and -- surprise! -- she has a copy of your original profile from the online dating site where you met to prove it.

Online dating services have privacy policies that offer some assurances about how that data will be used and not used, but they don't necessarily delete your data after you've canceled your subscription and moved on. Many sites keep the profiles and related data long after you've left the service; some won't delete it unless you ask -- and others never delete it at all.

"We have an archiving strategy, but we don't delete you out of our database," says Joseph Essas, vice president of technology at eHarmony. In that way, users who return a few months -- or a few years -- later don't have to fill out the 400-question profile again. "We'll remember who you are," he says.

That's important because a substantial percentage of users tend to return to online dating sites over and over again. eHarmony also uses that archival data for research purposes, according to a company spokesperson.

Yahoo Personals declined to say how long it retains customer information. True.com retains the data indefinitely. "The data just sits there. We don't really get rid of those [old records]," says CEO and founder Herb Vest. But Plenty of Fish is more pragmatic about its disk space. It tends to delete records after six months to a year of inactivity, according to CEO Markus Frind.

Users should know the retention policy of the service they're using, says Jonathan Sablone, a partner and chair of the e-discovery group at law firm Nixon Peabody LLP. "If you don't know what the policy is, you have to assume that the data will be there for a very long time, if not forever," he says.

Legal concerns

Users should be well familiar with a dating site's privacy policy. Ideally, you should have a good idea what will happen if the site is presented with a subpoena or court order.

eHarmony maintains that its records are safe. It has a strict privacy policy and complies with the state and federal laws regarding the privacy of electronically stored information, "which prohibit the release of customer records in response to a subpoena in civil litigation," a spokesperson says. "For example, the contents of users' communications cannot be disclosed in response to a subpoena."

That is true for cases where the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act applies, says Sablone, but litigants can still get the data. "If there's information within that database that may be relevant to a divorce proceeding, then through a court order, it's possible to obtain that. If the court issues an order, you've got to do it."

While businesses routintely delete old records to protect themselves from future legal discovery requests, many online dating sites don't. "The danger of retaining information longer [than is necessary] is that it opens the door for legal processes down the road," says Sablone.

That means personal data within online dating profiles has the potential to haunt users months or even years later. "The risk is that the detailed personality profiles can be disclosed in a lawsuit and then used against you in novel and negative ways," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. These include divorce or custody proceedings, employment-related lawsuits and potentially even medical-related lawsuits.

Though rare, legal actions have been filed in cases ranging from date rape accusations to sexual harassment accusations to a lawsuit (preview the story here) against former WellPoint Inc. executive David Colby by a woman who contended that he misrepresented himself on Match.com.

In an ideal world, the service would notify the customer immediately of a subpoena so that he could get a court order to block it. But online dating services are not obligated to tell you when someone presents a subpoena or court order demanding your profile data.

"Whether or not a dating site will do this for each and every customer is an open question that only the site's privacy policy can answer," Dixon says. Those policies, she says, aren't reassuring.

Some Web companies fight hard to protect records. "They will resist every effort to produce that data," says Sablone. Others simply notify the user, particularly if the data resides on an active storage device and is inexpensive to produce. "They put the burden on the consumer to fight that battle," he says.

Matchmaking or marketing?

Online dating services have good reasons for wanting to hang onto user data: It's valuable. The sites gather extensive amounts of personal information about their customers that can be extremely valuable for marketing purposes.

Yahoo Personals questionnaire
Online dating sites like Yahoo Personals ask a lot of information that can be used in ways you might not have anticipated.

When you sign up for an online dating site, you fill out a profile, which can run from a few dozen questions to several hundred. It includes both demographic data (age, gender, location, race and religion) and personal preferences even your mom might not know about. (You don't want to date Hindus or Catholics. Who knew?)



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