By Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch
Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
Facebook’s /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -0.04% flirtation with matchmaking could serve up certain perks for singles, but users should still think twice before sharing intimate data with the scandal-scarred tech giant, privacy experts warn.
The social networking site recently debuted Facebook Dating, a service that lets adult Facebook users opt into a separate “Dating” profile bearing only their first name and age, in the United States. The product operates in 19 other countries, including Canada, Mexico and the Philippines, and will roll out to Europe by early next year.
Users can decide whether they want to share information like photos, occupation and gender identity, and current Facebook friends aren’t suggested as matches or able to see a user’s dating profile, according to the company. Matches are suggested based on “preferences, interests and other things you do on Facebook.” An Instagram-integrated “Secret Crush” feature also lets users carry a torch for people they know, only notifying the other party if there’s mutual interest.
The service is ad-free and free to use. And the company stressed that what happens on Facebook Dating stays on Facebook Dating: “It won’t be shared to the rest of Facebook,” Facebook Dating product manager Nathan Sharp wrote in a blog post .
But the proposition that online daters place their faith in Facebook earned immediate skepticism, given the company’s many data-related transgressions over the years. “Happiness, brought to you by the company that gave you the Cambridge Analytica Scandal™!” wrote New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel. “lol i can’t think of anything i would trust facebook to not accidentally reveal less,” tweeted Slate writer Ashley Feinberg of the Secret Crush feature.
Just one day before Facebook’s announcement, in fact, TechCrunch reported that a non-password-protected server with more than 419 million users’ phone numbers and Facebook IDs had been discovered online.
A Facebook spokesman told the site that the dataset had been taken down and there was no evidence Facebook accounts had been compromised. “This data set is old and appears to have information obtained before we made changes last year to remove people’s ability to find others using their phone numbers,” he said.
Mark Weinstein, a privacy expert and CEO of the social network MeWe, urged users against entrusting Facebook “with their romantic life, dating details and interests, and fetishes and nuances.”
“Facebook’s promises don’t mean anything — we have well over a decade of evidence of that, including this week,” he told MarketWatch. “Just the fact that they are repeatedly revealing that they leave critical data unsecured … should scare people enough.”
McGrath also raised concern over any one company knowing so much about its users, especially given Facebook’s ownership of platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. “From a privacy standpoint, alarm bells should be ringing when one company has a monopoly on our personal data,” he said.
The potential public airing of some users’ data could also pose safety risks if they are LGBTQ and not out, for example, said Jennifer King, the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School. And it’s unclear how Facebook plans to combat the proliferation of online romance scams , King said, or whether it has a sufficient customer-service infrastructure in place to properly respond to users’ complaints.
“Given that they’re not charging for this service, I question whether they’ll be responsive in a timely fashion, in a way that you might see other sites take more aggressive action,” she said.
Facebook didn’t respond to questions from MarketWatch about its plan for handling romance scams, what precautions it had taken to prevent users’ dating information from being compromised, and whether it planned to monetize the service in the future, among other queries.
But King also saw potential upsides to the service, pointing out it seemed to have been designed with an eye toward safety and security: Users can share date locations and/or details with a trusted contact as they set off to meet someone in person, according to Facebook. And Facebook’s ability to suggest matches based on such vast criteria — for example, users’ mutual groups and events — opens up the potential for “more rich connections” than they might find on a traditional dating app.
Plus, she pointed out, some of Facebook’s online-dating competitors don’t exactly have spotless data-privacy records. For example, Danish researchers drew criticism in 2016 after releasing about 70,000 OKCupid /zigman2/quotes/207178501/composite MTCH -0.31% users’ profile information without the site’s or users’ permission. In 2018, NBC News reported that the gay dating app Grindr had a security vulnerability that could reveal users’ location data. (The company at the time said it had “moved quickly to make changes to its platform to resolve this issue.”)
And this past Valentine’s Day, Coffee Meets Bagel users learned that some of their names and email addresses “may have been acquired by an unauthorized party.”
“To the extent that [Facebook maintains its] wall between the dating service and the rest of the platform with regards to selling data or targeting for advertising,” King said, “it potentially, actually, could be a better place for some people.”
So should unattached Facebookers trust Mark Zuckerberg and company with their casual hookups, soulmate searching and everything in between?
“I guess if you trust them so far — if you don’t feel like you’ve had a problem with them to date — then I don’t see any major risks that this introduces,” King said. “But I would tread carefully with what new things you elect to share with them that you aren’t already sharing.”
McGrath, for his part, said he believes Facebook has done “very little over the years” to earn back its users’ trust.
Shares of Facebook have been up 42% so far this year compared to a 15% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +0.12% and an 18% increase for the S&P 500 Index /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +0.01% .