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Are Tinder and Spotify Tracking Your Personal Data?

"People might think they’re more benign, but they are still highly influential." 

Tech giants, including Facebook, Google, and TikTok, are often subject to scrutiny for their overly intrusive online behaviour, which involves meddling with the personal data of their users—and with them under the radar, platforms such as Tinder and Spotify easily get off the hook. Do the streaming service and networking applications not interfere with our sensitive information? A study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, thinks otherwise. 

According to a team of researchers at the University of Auckland, the algorithmic recommendations used by these digital platforms have a significant impact on user behaviour and preferences. "We conducted a sequential analysis of several iterations of Spotify and Tinder’s Privacy Policies and Terms of Use to assess possible implications for how the companies’ recommendation algorithms work. For instance, Tinder and Spotify ground their platforms on recommendation algorithms that nudge users to either listen to specific songs or romantically match with specific users," the research paper stated. 

"Despite their powerful influence, there is little concrete detail about how exactly these algorithms work, so we had to use creative ways to find out," said Dr Fabio Morreale, Auckland School of Music, in a university press release. "...their users, and society at large, deserve more clarity as to how recommendation algorithms are functioning," he added. 

"They tend toward the legalistic and vague, inhibiting the ability of outsiders to properly scrutinise the companies’ algorithms and their relationship with users. It makes it difficult for academic researchers and certainly for the average user," Morreale put forth. Back in 2012, Spotify solely acquired basic information from its users—including personal details about the user's age, gender, email address, password, and song preferences. A decade later, the software can access users’ photos, location data, voice data, background sound data, and other private information. 

Tinder, on the other hand, had previously stated that it matched people based on 'desirability scores' calculated by an algorithm. "I don't think users fully understand or know about how Tinder's algorithm works, and Tinder goes out of its way not to tell us. That’s not to say that this is an evil thing—the problem is that they’re not transparent about how the matching occurs. In my opinion, the Terms of Use should specify that," he posits. 

While the researchers weren't able to fully uncover the nitty-gritties of how the algorithms function, they shed a light on a more overarching issue; companies need to be more transparent about the gathering, and usage, of their user data. "With these powerful digital platforms possessing considerable influence in contemporary society, their users and society, at large, deserve more clarity as to how recommendation algorithms are functioning. It’s crazy that we can’t find out; I think in the future we're going to look back and see this as the Wild West of big tech," Dr Morreale concludes.