Excerpted from a Marketplace Podcast by Kimberly Adams

Last week, Tinder rolled out a new feature that allows users to pay $2.50 to check if matches have certain types of criminal records associated with a sex offender registry, arrests or convictions for “violent or harmful behavior.”

The company partnered with public record aggregator Garbo to help users make more informed choices about who they interact with online.

Some experts are concerned that use of this specific data may not be the best way to improve safety. Sarah Lageson, associate professor at Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice, shared her concerns with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams.

Sarah Lageson: Garbo has done the enormous task of collecting criminal record data from over 3,000 different county level jurisdictions. They’ve used an algorithm to code these records and flag the types of criminal records they think users would be concerned about, such as violent or sexually violent offenses. When you run a person’s name, you’ll get results, categorized as records that are the best matches, and perhaps the most accurate that are a loose match and perhaps less accurate. And so, it offers users a way to screen potential matches, but it is using data from the criminal legal system which has its own set of problems.

Kimberly Adams: What are those problems?

Lageson: Criminal record data is notoriously incomplete. Jurisdictions categorize crimes differently based on state law. Unfortunately, a lot of states don’t have the infrastructure for data matching techniques. Sometimes people’s records don’t show up when they do have a record or other people’s records will show up in a search for their name or birth date. Then there’s a problem of records that have been sealed or expunged still showing up on private platforms. Bigger picture, you know, we have a lot of biases in the criminal legal system that are reflected in the data. And that comes from the over-policing and over-prosecution of certain communities, especially communities of color. So, the problems that we might recognize in the criminal legal system, more broadly, are definitely reflected in the data that we use in other settings, such as online dating.

Adams: How is Garbo addressing those concerns?

Lageson: Garbo is not going to report types of low-level offenses that are unrelated to dating safety, like marijuana offenses. My research has shown that people can sometimes have a “violent arrest record” or a “violent charge” because of police decisions or overcharging by prosecutors as a way to influence a person towards a plea bargain. So, when we’re using non-conviction data, we run the risk of using data that’s based more on the legal-system decision making, rather than the actual safety of a person.

Adams: Garbo is considered an aggregator and not a background check company. How does that affect the regulations associated with it?

Lageson: Yeah, that’s a tricky question the courts are struggling with. A background check company is regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. So, there’s a set of rights the subject of the record will get, such as getting a copy or being able to contest inaccurate or outdated information. That’s because we know that record is being used to make a decision in a business context. Now in the era of big data and the availability of public records, another set of companies have used records as a data aggregation tool. And they’re governed under Section 230 (of the Communications Decency Act). The idea is they’re taking data that’s coming directly from other sources. And it’s up to those third parties to make their data as accurate as possible, not the data aggregator. So, this is why people in my field have concerns about the accuracy of data being aggregated at this sort of scale and what that means for the individual person who’s the subject of the check.

Adams: Do you anticipate any sort of privacy pushback from users of these dating apps?

Lageson: Garbo has said they won’t publish the home address or other identifying details that you see on search websites, where the address and mugshot and other information about a person are posted alongside their criminal records. Those sorts of websites certainly pose privacy problems and leave people vulnerable to stalking or harassment. So, Garbo is thinking about privacy in that way.

Adams: How do you think adding this type of feature will impact user safety on other dating apps that might roll out this similar feature?

Lageson: In the information age, we wish we could have perfect information about everybody we interact with. When we have tools like this, it sort of helps, you know, scratch that itch. The problem is this is not a silver bullet. Garbo has been clear about that on the platform. You know, reminding people that there might be missing data, reminding people that most people who are sexually violent do not have a criminal record and so they won’t show up on the platform. So, we can’t just rely on a background check showing whether or not someone has a record to keep us safe.

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