Online dating: Your profile's long, scary shelf life

After you and your new have walked hand-in-hand into the sunset, the online dating site you used to meet does not necessarily delete your data


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 cancelled 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. 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. "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.

Legal concerns

Users should be well familiar with a dating site's privacy policy. Ideally, you should have a good idea what will happen if the site is presented with a subpoena or court order.

eHarmony maintains that its records are safe. It has a strict privacy policy and complies with the state and federal laws regarding the privacy of electronically stored information, "which prohibit the release of customer records in response to a subpoena in civil litigation," a spokesperson says. "For example, the contents of users' communications cannot be disclosed in response to a subpoena."

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."

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