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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 2
February 2017
Online Dating: How to Protect Your Privacy

The problem
Online dating can be a lot of fun. There are millions out there looking to meet new people for all kinds of reasons. Unfortunately, many things you may choose to do online can also put your privacy (and your safety) at risk.

My general advice is to have fun but also be careful. Think about the consequences of each choice you make and how, in the worst case, a malicious or dishonest or immature person might take advantage of you. The good news is that if you learn some simple approaches to protecting your privacy, then you can prepare for the worst and still hope for the best.

Some of this advice also applies to how you might approach Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites, but online dating is different. On social media sites, you can choose to be known by your real identity, or completely hide your identity while still posting things publicly, but there is no built-in expectation of meeting in real life. On dating sites you're placing an ad (and responding to other users' ads), presumably with the idea of eventually meeting in person, so there is more at stake.

The central theme here is to ask yourself:
How can I share interesting, fun, or important things about me without revealing things that someone could use to figure out who I am, where I live, where I work, and how to find me?

Your public online profile
One of the first things you do on a dating site is create a profile. Below are the basic elements, and what you should bear in mind for each one to protect your privacy. Not every site will have every element listed here. Also, on many sites your profile will be visible only to other members of the site, but some make it visible to the internet, including search engines like Google.
  • Username: Don't use any part of your first name, last name, initials, address, city, phone number, email address, or website. "martinkadansky" or "mkad" would be bad choices, so choose something abstract like "sparky47" or descriptive like "expertquilter" or "NoviceDancer."
  • Location or City: Don't choose your actual town. Instead, pick one that's nearby. That way people searching by distance will still get a reasonable idea of how far away you are without getting a critical piece of information about you.
  • Photo: Don't post any photos of yourself (or your pets, family, house, hobbies, etc.) that you have already posted anywhere else online, ever, not even cleverly cropped ones. Why? The growth of "reverse image search" services like Tineye and Google Images (and others) means that anyone might take the photo you've posted on a dating site and search using it. Seconds later they might land on your Facebook page or Instagram or LinkedIn profile, etc. or your friend's Facebook page, any of which will give them a wealth of information about you. Instead, choose a photo that you have never used online. Even better, shoot some new ones, and then only post them in this context.
  • Date of birth: You will need to enter this in order to show that you're over 18, but don't enter your real birthdate. Instead, choose one that's at least a week or a month later or earlier. If astrology matters to you, pick a different date that still preserves your Zodiac sign.
  • Age: While many sites calculate your age based on your birthdate, some ask you to enter your Age instead. I suggest entering one or two years older or younger, but on such sites you will also need to update this every year.
  • Other basic information like gender, height, smoking, hair color, etc.: As with everything else, ask yourself if any item (or combination of items) could be used to identify you.
  • Headline or Title or brief description: Don't enter any personal information.
  • Introduction or long description: This is where you would write about yourself, and what you are (and are not) looking for. Don't enter any information that could specifically identify you, your job, your family, etc. Don't include links to your Facebook page, personal blog, or anything else that you have created online.
  • Other multiple choice answers, such as marital status, interests, hobbies, skills: The same advice applies, especially if there's something unique that might identify you.
In addition, ask a friend to review what you've written to make sure you haven't accidentally left any clues to your identity or contact information.

Also, remember that:
  • Anything that you put in your profile (text, photos, etc.) or post to a forum can be seen by other members of the site (and the staff members who run the site), which means that they can copy it and use it however they want, forever.
  • In the Terms of Service for the dating site, you may also have agreed that anything you post can be used by the site in any way they want, now and forever, even if you edit or remove it, or delete your profile.
  • Many well-meaning people will tell you to add a "warning" to your profile to ward off anyone using what's in it, but I think that only gives you a false sense of security, has no legal merit, and is a complete waste of time.
Other things you might do on a dating site
Many dating sites have public discussion groups, surveys, etc. on a variety of topics in which anyone can participate, and some also give you the ability to post comments on other members' profiles. Be careful of anything you write in such forums. Take your time and review what you write before you submit it. You may not be able to edit or delete it later.

Some sites also have "chat rooms," which let multiple members type messages to each other in a live group discussion.

Most dating sites let members send and receive on-site messages to each other which are not public. Apart from the staff people who run the site, these messages are only visible to you and the other member.
  • On some sites this is free, on others it's a premium (paid) feature, but however a conversation may begin with another member, be careful that what you write does not reveal too much about you before you are ready.
  • In addition to typing textual messages, some sites also permit you to attach photos or other files to a message.
  • Some sites also have member-to-member instant messaging, so you can type back and forth in real time, and sometimes also share photos or other files.
  • Some also have on-site member-to-member live voice and video chat functions, similar to Skype.
As above, my advice is the same:
  • Don't rush into telling someone anything about you that could be used to identify you or contact you off-site.
  • You don't have to answer every question fully, nor use your real name, nor should you have to explain to the other person why you are being vague or careful, nor should you give in to any pressure to move the conversation off-site to regular email or texting or phone or any other messaging system.
  • For example, if they ask "Where do you work?" you could say, "A small, professional office outside the city" and not "The Law offices of Smith and Jones in Lexington." You could also say "I have a job that I like," and if pressed, "I'm not comfortable sharing more with you at this point. Tell me more about you."
  • Also, remember that (similar to regular email) the other person will have their own copies of anything you share, including everything you've typed and any photos you've attached, and they can keep them and do anything they want with them, forever. If you engage in a live voice-only or voice & video conversation, the other person will hear any background sounds and see anything that's visible over your shoulder or behind you. And, even though you may have the impression that this live conversation is fleeting, the other person may have software that can record your voice and video on their end without your knowledge or permission, and they can then do anything they want with that data, forever.
If an online conversation goes sour
Sometimes talking to someone online doesn't go well:
  • They press you for details about you and your life.
  • They get angry or controlling or abusive.
  • Their story changes or is inconsistent, or their photo doesn't match their profile, or something else happens that makes you start to suspect that they are not who they appear to be.
Sometimes simply not replying to someone can trigger such behavior.

If this happens to you, many dating sites have one or more of the following functions, which I recommend you learn how to use:
  • Hide: This typically hides someone else's profile from appearing on the site when you're searching or browsing, but does not prevent you from contacting each other nor hide you from their view.
  • Block: This typically prevents the other person from contacting you and (on some sites) from being able to view your profile. However, it does not prevent them from creating a new profile and contacting you using that.
  • Report: This lets you report an abusive member to the staff running the site.
Moving the conversation off-site
If you do decide to move a conversation off-site, there are still a number of ways you can protect your privacy, all of which require a little preparation and practice in advance:
  • Regular email: Don't share your regular personal or work email address. Instead, create a separate email address that you will only use in this context, or perhaps only with that person, and consider it to be disposable. As above, don't reveal anything about you, e.g., choose an abstract email address like sparky47@gmail.com instead of YourRealName@gmail.com, and don't use your real first or last name when you set up this email account.
  • Instant messaging: Whether you prefer Yahoo Messenger, kik, or some other instant messaging system, the same advice applies: Don't share your regular account id, instead create a new account for this context instead, and consider it disposable.
  • Texting: Instead of sharing your actual cell phone number, there are a number of alternative methods you can use, including creating a Google Voice number, using an anonymous texting app, and more.
  • Talking by phone: Similarly, you could use Google Voice, or an app that masks your Caller ID information, or one that lets you create an alternate number.
  • Video chat: Instead of sharing your regular Skype or ooVoo or Viber account id, create another for this purpose.
I also suggest practicing with a friend, both to get comfortable with the technology, and to help you confirm that you're not revealing any personal information.

Meeting in person
If you decide to meet someone in person, I recommend:
  • Choose a public place, like a coffee shop or busy public square.
  • Travel there on your own. Do not have them pick you up at your house.
  • Be prepared to pay for your own coffee or food in case you have to leave.
For additional security, especially if the other person makes you nervous, you could:
  • Let a friend know about this meeting, including the other person's name, contact info, photo, etc. There's nothing wrong with asking for more information about them than you have given them about you. Anyone who respects you and your interest in staying safe and private should understand that, and anyone who balks at that or complains that it's unfair or asymmetrical isn't worth your time.
  • Have a check-in time that a friend is expecting you to call to say that you're ok, and work out in advance what they'll do if they don't hear from you.
  • Consider bringing a friend and have them watch from a nearby table.
  • Don't leave your drink or food or purse unattended.
  • Don't have the other person walk you to your car, where they could note its make, model, and license plate, and possibly also follow you home. Say goodbye and watch them leave first, with a plausible reason, e.g., you have to make a call and there's no need for them to wait.
  • Know what time the place closes, and wrap up beforehand so there are still people around when you leave.
Your account information
For your security, I also recommend:
  • Account password: When creating your account, don't re-use a password from any other site, choose one that is new and unique.
  • Security questions: Don't use real answers, choose fictional ones (and write them down for your records) instead. For example: "What is your dream job? radiator" "Where were you born? kleenex"
  • Registered email address: Most dating sites require an email address for your account. This will not be visible to other users on the site, but since the site will probably use it for notices about your account, you might decide to create a separate email account just for this purpose.
Online dating should be fun. Unfortunately, every piece of information you post online can be seen and exploited and kept forever by other people, so pay attention and think ahead in order to protect your privacy.

Where to go from here
  • If you've never used an online dating site, use my advice to protect yourself from the start.
  • If you're already active in online dating, review your current profile and your activity with this advice in mind, and change or remove anything that puts your privacy at risk.
  • Tineye Reverse Image Search: http://www.tineye.com
  • Google Images reverse image search: go to http://images.google.com and then click "Search by image"
  • Google Voice: http://voice.google.com
  • Google: online dating safety
  • Google: how to text without revealing my real cell number
  • Google: how to create an alternate cell number
  • http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2015/2015_07_29.html - "Hackers Can Break Into Your Online Accounts *Without* Guessing Your Password! Use This Simple Tip to Protect Your Email and Other Accounts"
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2017 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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