Dating apps including Tinder and Grindr have failed to prevent child sexual exploitation on their platforms, in part due to weak age verification measures, according to a new report by the Sunday Times.
Through a public records request, the Sunday Times obtained documents from ten UK police forces detailing several cases of child grooming and sexual exploitation involving online dating services. The incidents included a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was exploited into sending nude photos, an eight-year-old who had a “sexual conversation” with a man as well as sent him sexual photos, and a 13-year-old boy who was sexually abused by 21 men through dating apps, including Grindr. The teenage boy is now an adult and told the Sunday Times that he was “brainwashed” by his abusers—of which two were reportedly teachers—and was able to access the app by using a fake birth date.
Since 2015, there have been investigations into over 30 cases of child rape in Britain in which victims were able to circumvent age verification on dating apps, according to the documents obtained. The records reportedly indicated that there have been 60 cases on top of that involving child sexual exploitation on online dating services.
“I will be writing to these companies asking what measures they have in place to keep children safe from harm, including verifying their age,” Jeremy Wright, an English Conservative Party politician and Culture Secretary, told the Sunday Times. “If I’m not satisfied with their response, I reserve the right to take further action.”
A Tinder spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email that the company uses “a network of industry-leading automated and manual moderation and review tools, systems and processes - and spend millions of dollars annually - to prevent, monitor and remove minors and other inappropriate behavior from our app.” They said the automated tools scan user profiles for “red-flag language and images” and they noted the company also manually reviews “suspicious profiles, activity, and user generated reports,” as well as blocks “email addresses, phone numbers and other identifiers associated with underage users trying to circumvent these restrictions.”
“The bottom line is this: we are consistently evaluating and refining our processes to prevent underage access, and will always work with law enforcement, where possible, to protect our users as well,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t want minors on Tinder. Period.”
Grindr sent over the following statement to Gizmodo:
“We are saddened to learn of these reports. Grindr is committed to creating a safe and secure environment to help our community connect and thrive, and any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behavior is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service. We encourage users to report improper or illegal behavior either within the app or directly via email to email@example.com. In addition, our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”
Automated detection tools, manual moderation, and user-generated reports may enable dating services to retroactively monitor and take down any profiles that appear to violate their age requirements, but these processes don’t prevent all minors from lying about their birth date and using the apps. The age verification process for these apps, like most internet services, relies on the honor system. It’s unclear whether dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder will ever require users to provide more hard evidence of their age, but as Wright’s comment above suggests, if they don’t, legislators might force their hand.