February 13, 2009, 12:08 PM — Two years after meeting your one true love, you find yourself embroiled in a nasty divorce. During the proceedings, your spouse claims that you misrepresented yourself right from the beginning, and -- surprise! -- she has a copy of your original profile from the online dating site where you met to prove it.
Online dating services have privacy policies that offer some assurances about how that data will be used and not used, but they don't necessarily delete your data after you've canceled your subscription and moved on. Many sites keep the profiles and related data long after you've left the service; some won't delete it unless you ask -- and others never delete it at all.
"We have an archiving strategy, but we don't delete you out of our database," says Joseph Essas, vice president of technology at eHarmony . In that way, users who return a few months -- or a few years -- later don't have to fill out the 400-question profile again. "We'll remember who you are," he says.
That's important because a substantial percentage of users tend to return to online dating sites over and over again. eHarmony also uses that archival data for research purposes, according to a company spokesperson.
Yahoo Personals declined to say how long it retains customer information. True.com retains the data indefinitely. "The data just sits there. We don't really get rid of those [old records]," says CEO and founder Herb Vest. But Plenty of Fish is more pragmatic about its disk space. It tends to delete records after six months to a year of inactivity, according to CEO Markus Frind.
Users should know the retention policy of the service they're using, says Jonathan Sablone, a partner and chair of the e-discovery group at law firm Nixon Peabody LLP . "If you don't know what the policy is, you have to assume that the data will be there for a very long time, if not forever," he says.
That is true for cases where the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act applies, says Sablone, but litigants can still get the data. "If there's information within that database that may be relevant to a divorce proceeding, then through a court order, it's possible to obtain that. If the court issues an order, you've got to do it."
While businesses routintely delete old records to protect themselves from future legal discovery requests, many online dating sites don't. "The danger of retaining information longer [than is necessary] is that it opens the door for legal processes down the road," says Sablone.
That means personal data within online dating profiles has the potential to haunt users months or even years later. "The risk is that the detailed personality profiles can be disclosed in a lawsuit and then used against you in novel and negative ways," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum . These include divorce or custody proceedings, employment-related lawsuits and potentially even medical-related lawsuits.
Though rare, legal actions have been filed in cases ranging from date rape accusations to sexual harassment accusations to a lawsuit ( preview the story here ) against former WellPoint Inc. executive David Colby by a woman who contended that he misrepresented himself on Match.com .
In an ideal world, the service would notify the customer immediately of a subpoena so that he could get a court order to block it. But online dating services are not obligated to tell you when someone presents a subpoena or court order demanding your profile data.
Some Web companies fight hard to protect records. "They will resist every effort to produce that data," says Sablone. Others simply notify the user, particularly if the data resides on an active storage device and is inexpensive to produce. "They put the burden on the consumer to fight that battle," he says.
Matchmaking or marketing?
Online dating services have good reasons for wanting to hang onto user data: It's valuable. The sites gather extensive amounts of personal information about their customers that can be extremely valuable for marketing purposes.
When you sign up for an online dating site, you fill out a profile, which can run from a few dozen questions to several hundred. It includes both demographic data (age, gender, location, race and religion) and personal preferences even your mom might not know about. (You don't want to date Hindus or Catholics. Who knew?)
Most services use this profile data to try to convert customers who are just looking into paying subscribers. But what else can they do with it?
For one, they can try and sell you other products or services from their own company. While Yahoo Personals, Plenty of Fish and PerfectMatch.com all say they eschew this practice, eHarmony uses the business intelligence it has gained about its customers to market related services on four advertiser-supported advice sites, including Project Wedding and Fertile Thoughts . More are planned.
That same data also can be used by online dating sites that carry advertising to deliver ads or offers for complementary advertiser-supported services that are highly targeted to individuals. "Ultimately, we're looking at hypertargeting individuals to deliver ads that way," says a spokesperson for eHarmony.
Ross Williams, CEO at White Label Dating , which provides business and hosting services to dating sites, says the prospect of offering highly targeted advertising based on detailed demographic, behavioral and psychological data -- and even very detailed profile data such as the color of your hair and that you're balding -- is attractive.
"We know that information. If I have a hair product for men, I don't think there are any places online other than online dating where you can get that [demographic data]," he says. That type of information, Williams says, gives online dating sites a unique competitive opportunity, if they're willing to exploit it.
That raises concerns for Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse . He thinks that users who sign up for online dating services may be giving up too much about themselves in the bargain.
"I would be reluctant to provide the level of information they are requesting. You're essentially providing a gold mine of information, both for behavioral and marketing purposes. That information -- on hobbies, interests, religion -- is very valuable information that you are aggregating into one location," he says.
Stephens also notes that it's probably better not to reveal too much about yourself before you meet someone. As with a good resume, an online profile should be a teaser that makes people want to meet you, rather than a detailed biography. "You might want to use a bit of discretion and leave a little bit of mystery there," he says.
Mark Brooks, editor of Online Personals Watch , a newsletter that covers online dating and social networking sites, sees highly targeted marketing as inevitable. He says traditional "interruption marketing" -- rollovers, pop-ups and so forth -- hasn't worked well on Internet dating sites because users don't pay attention to the ads.
Brooks thinks ad-supported sites such as Plenty of Fish (a former client of Brooks' consultancy, Courtland Brooks) should leverage compatibility profiles to allow advertisers to target users with highly contextual offers that would be of the most interest to them. "Advertising is an annoyance. The only way it will work is through the power of the friendly referral," he says.
But for now, Plenty of Fish's Frind says the site's current advertising model, which lets advertisers target users based on basic demographic information, is working just fine. He claims that the site has a higher click-through rate than social networking sites and generated about $10 million in ad revenue last year.
As these profile databases continue to scale, the economics of targeted adverting could one day switch the dominant model from subscription-based to advertising-based. "Once you build up a big enough database, advertising becomes quite interesting," Williams says.
Protecting your personal data
Once you're through using a service, some sites will delete your data if you ask. If you think you'll return to the site, it might be convenient to have your profile waiting. But users who value their privacy may want to ask to have their profiles deleted when they leave.
Plenty of Fish will honor that, says Frind. Vest says True.com will also delete user profiles on request. But Sablone warns that if there's no stated policy or agreement in advance, a customer request to delete data is just that. "It's a request that the company may follow -- or not," he says.
eHarmony has a different policy. "We do not permanently delete account information from our system, but when members ask to close their account, we ensure that their profile information is turned off and not shared with other members unless the member explicitly asks for the account to be reactivated," says a spokesperson.
eHarmony also deletes the user's e-mail account information once the account has been closed. Presumably, you won't be hearing from them again. But that time capsule of data about you remains in the vault forever. And, says Dixon, "that [privacy] policy can change any time the site wants to change it."