"I had a second date—then it got creepy": The strange human rights question raised by dating apps

The way technology infers and influences our thoughts may have serious consequences for all of us—especially when we're trying to find love

March 12, 2020
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It is essentially human to want to connect with other people, to find love, friendship, affection, acceptance, or just sex. The last time I was in the dating pool, there wasn’t an app for that. But in 2020, the received wisdom is that swiping across people on your phone is now the only way to meet someone new. Sharon Stone recently discovered the challenges of online dating while famous when her account was blocked by Bumble after users reported her account as a fake. But looking for love online when you spend your days studying the way technology messes with your mind, as I do, is a whole other minefield.

But we are all human, and so, newly single, I decided to give it a go. Two days after I signed up to a dating app, the Norwegian Consumer Council confirmed my worst fears about the industry in a horrifying report detailing the extent of information shared about users by major dating apps for targeted advertising, among other things.

When we use these apps, they track our geo-location data, and emotional state, noting our ethnicity, sexual preferences, political and religious beliefs, and HIV status. Nothing is sacred and all information creates a picture of our inner lives that can be used to exploit us. We may be consenting adults, but do we have any idea what we are consenting to? Using a dating app leaves a pungent trail of our emotional lives to be tracked in real time across the online wilderness. The business models of these companies thrive on continued use of their apps, not on successful relationships that no longer require their use. The more desperately we swipe, the more profitable our data becomes. But we suspend our disbelief and hand over data in the search for love.

Apart from one man offering “erotic life art” and another wanting to know if I was “decently tall,” all my matches seemed reasonable, respectful and fundamentally nice. I had a few coffees and met one person I liked enough for a second date. But then it got creepy.

While texting a friend, I typed the word “man,” and my phone’s predictive text suggested I send an emoji of a male face. I had never felt the need to use a ‘man’ emoji and I noticed that it had a very clear idea of which “man” I was thinking of. Out of the six “man” emojis available, each set in different skin tones ranging from generic bright yellow, pale white to ebony, the suggested icon reflected the skin tone of my second date exactly. I then typed “woman.” The skin tone of the suggested emoji matched mine. I asked my friends to try the same, but they all got the generic yellow man. It felt as though the predictive text on my phone was trying very hard to express what it thought I was thinking.

I don’t know what provoked my phone to try to help me this way. Was it a bug exploiting the quiet co-mingling of our data? Or was a child messing with my emoji defaults? Wherever he came from, the creepy emoji man reminded me of the bigger picture.

As we increasingly live our lives and express ourselves digitally, inferences are being made on a constant basis about our inner lives. These are used to inform the choices we are given in life. Our digital data can affect our credit scores, job or immigration opportunities, and parole decisions if we ever run into the law. And the potential consequences of inferences about our romantic inclinations being shared in a world where people are still attacked, imprisoned or sentenced to death for who and how they love should never be underestimated.

Our interactions with technology also profoundly affect the way we think and feel. The growing sense that our phones are making us sadder is borne out in research that shows dating apps negatively affect our mental health. The dopamine hit of a match drives compulsive swiping. But hours of wasted time laced with feelings of rejection and the sense that people are disposable is a pretty toxic combination in the dark days of winter.

It is becoming clear that using technology like Google Maps can have long-lasting impacts on the hippocampus and shrink our ability to navigate the world. And our reliance on texting and social media to build relationships may also be narrowing our capacity to feel and connect. Online dating apps are full of people hoping for a real connection. But if your kink is genuine intimacy, there is no emoji for that, nothing that really captures profound love, nothing even that reflects unfettered desire—an aubergine emoji or a winky face with devil horns just doesn’t cut it.

The way technology infers and influences our thoughts and feelings may have serious consequences for all of us. International human rights law gives us the absolute right to think and feel what we like in the inner sanctum of our minds, all free from intrusion, manipulation and punishment. Absolute rights are crucial to the dignity and autonomy that underpin what it means to be human, and any interference with these rights degrades us as individuals and societies in ways which are not easy to predict or repair. But our right to freedom of thought is not yet adequately protected from the invasive desire of technology to understand and mould us on a granular level. And online dating apps interfere with our inner lives at their most raw and vulnerable.

I only managed a couple of weeks of online dating. Since I stopped, my keyboard has reverted to the artificial yellow man—whether that’s an accurate reflection of my current emotional state is something I’d rather keep to myself. But if there was a dating app that would let me keep my feelings private, I might be up for that.