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Tinder, harassment, and why privacy is hard [Collision Course #10]

Tinder, harassment, and why privacy is hard [Collision Course #10]
By Tommy Collison • Issue #10 • View online
Hello and welcome to the 10th edition of Collision Course, a newsletter about tech policy, consumer privacy, and the future. As always, click here to read previous issues.
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Today: what does “living privately” look like?

For a final project for a journalism class at NYU, I interviewed a sophomore at George Washington University who was harassed by someone she met on Tinder.
“He would say overtly sexual things, like ‘can’t wait to rip your clothes off when I see you,’ or, since he was a TA, he asked ‘ever fantasize about your teachers? I hope I can fulfill those fantasies.’”
“I started feeling uncomfortable,” she continues. “Just because I am willing to go on a date doesn’t make him entitled to think that I’ll just have sex with him. I ended up telling him that I wasn’t interested in meeting up with him anymore and he flipped out.”
The man ended up reporting her as “an infected sex worker who is actively soliciting,” and posted her name and cellphone number on several escort websites.
I think the story connected with people because it put a new spin on something familiar. Tinder launched the year before I started college, and started to get really big around my second year. The swiping aspect of the app made it feel kind of like a game — swipe on dozens of people, feel a dopamine hit when you get a match. The GW sophomore story reminded people that this was a service predicated on giving strangers your name, your photo, your cellphone number, things that we generally keep private.
I was telling this story earlier this week, and I started thinking about how the GW sophomore connects to millions of Facebook users.
The tension in this story stems from the fact that the woman willingly gave the guy her number. She had willingly set up a Tinder account, meeting a guy was presumably an end-goal, and swapping phone numbers with someone is a step toward that goal. In other words, the system worked, but the guy turned out to be a jerk.
To me, this shows that there’s a distinction when it comes to privacy that often gets ignored. Privacy is much more about choice and control than it is about secrecy. It’s not that you want to hide your cellphone number from everyone ever — quite the opposite.
The best definition I’ve found comes from Joe Edelman
Living Privately. — Building and maintaining a sense of what to show in each social environment. — Discovering and creating new environments in which we can show more of ourselves. — Assessing where you can grow new parts of yourself which aren’t (yet) for public display.
People don’t want to be hermits, disconnected from other people. They do, however, want control over what gets shared, with who, and when.
Facebook’s meteoric user growth (and the comparatively small size of the #DeleteFacebook campaign in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal) is testament to the fact that, actually, people really like sharing personal information about themselves online. Any privacy activism has to take this fact into account.
User models
Another example of tension: monitoring apps. One of the built-in iPhone apps, Find my Friends does just this. The app shares your phone’s location, either temporarily or permanently, with other people. Think of it as a digital Marauders’ Map, with people showing up as dots on a map. a big privacy concern if it’s activated without permission, but useful for sharing locations with friends for a day, keeping track of where they are at concerts, outdoor markets, and so on.
Other monitoring apps keep track of someone’s web browser use. Obviously, it would be a serious privacy violation to install the program without the user’s consent, but what about the use case is a parent keeping an eye on what their eight-year-old does online?
Each of these tools have what I call “defensible use cases,” but you have a mission creep/Pandora’s box effect, where a tool gets used in new (and potentially nefarious) ways after it’s been created.
Back to the dating apps
Ultimately, the times when sharing fails us will be particularly painful on dating apps, which are by their nature more intimate. Tinder claims to have tens of millions of users, and given its success over the last few years, I don’t see it losing popularity any time soon.
You can read my full story about the woman from GW here. I’m proud of it, even if it is charmingly sophomoric.
As always, I welcome your feedback, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’d like to see covered in this newsletter. I’m @tommycollison on Twitter, or you can email Please get in touch! 📩📬
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Tommy Collison

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