On Thursday, Facebook announced the start-up in the United States of Facebook Dating, a product that allows users to search for love all without the hassle of leaving the app where your angry uncle continues to share recycled memes about “Crooked Hillary.”
The feature was first announced in 2018 and is up and running in 20 countries as of Thursday.
Most companies would consider it poor timing to roll out a feature offering to manage the love lives of its users the day after reports of a large data breach. But in defense of Facebook — which is constantly resetting its “Days Without an Embarrassing Privacy Failure” counter — there’s almost never a good time.
Yes, you absolutely deserve a lifetime of love and happiness, and yes, there’s a decent argument to be made that Facebook knows more about you than any rival dating service ever could. But even if Facebook has the kind of weapons-grade algorithms that might move fast and break your dry spell, trusting the company with your love life feels like a disaster waiting to happen.
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This may seem uncharitable. After all, the company is framing Facebook Dating as altruism. “Right now it’s a really feel-good mission. It’s just connecting people,” Nathan Sharp, one of Facebook’s product managers, told reporters on Thursday. “There are no plans for ads and no plans for subscriptions.”
What’s in it for Facebook? The cynical observer might notice that Dating, apart from “just connecting people,” is also a clever backdoor for Facebook to do some mingling of its own. Specifically, to help merge and integrate its legacy product with Instagram, which it acquired in 2012. Unlike Facebook proper, the dating app lets users import Instagram photos and (soon) Instagram Stories into their profiles. The feature will also allow daters to add their Instagram followers to a widget called “Secret Crush,” which will notify you if your crush also adds you to his or her crush list.
Dating apps are home to some of the most sensitive personal information we choose to disclose (locations, interests, pictures, career history and all of our tastes and personal preferences). It adds up. In 2017, a French journalist used European Union privacy laws to request her Tinder data and received 800 pages of what she described as “a trip into my hopes, fears, sexual preferences and deepest secrets.” Which is another way of saying that this is information you want protected at all costs.
Plenty of legacy dating apps aren’t much better with privacy and security. But protecting your romantic secrets is a job that Facebook seems, given its history of data breaches, uniquely unqualified for. Sensing this, the company wrote a blog post assuring users that dating profiles would be mostly separate from traditional Facebook profiles (only the user’s first name and age will automatically populate in a dating profile; the rest need to be added by the user) and that information will be secure and opt-in. “Not everyone on Facebook is interested in dating, which is why we made Facebook Dating a separate, opt-in experience,” the blog post reads. “That means we won’t create a Facebook Dating profile for your account unless you specifically choose to create one.”
Those assurances are no match for the company’s recent history. Since 2017, Facebook has come under fire for:
Wednesday’s report from TechCrunch of an “exposed server” that “contained more than 419 million records over several databases on users across geographies, including 133 million records on U.S.-based Facebook users, 18 million records of users in the U.K., and another with more than 50 million records on users in Vietnam.”
A security flaw that potentially exposed the public and private photos of as many as 6.8 million users on its platform to developers.
A different bug that exposed up to 30 million users’ personal information last September.
An admission that the company “unintentionally uploaded” the email contacts of 1.5 million new Facebook users since May 2016.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where data from tens of millions of users was misappropriated and shared for profiling for political campaigns (but, sure, trust it to keep your secret crush).
The voter profiling resulted in a record $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission. Would you trust your dating profile, history and all of its attendant personal data to a company that the F.T.C. chairman noted in July had “failed to live up to its commitments” to “establish a reasonable program to protect privacy” over the last seven years?
Many people will! After all, billions of people still log into Facebook and deposit personal information despite its regular privacy failures. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And for those who are fed up with Facebook but just can’t seem to quit it, abstinence from using its dating feature is a tiny, yet satisfying way to protest the brazen platform.
But don’t take my word for it. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said it best last year in bold font newspaper ads. “We have a responsibility to protect your information,” he wrote. “If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.”