Dating While Black: The Privacy Risks and Rewards of Niche Dating Apps

Bae is a dating app geared toward young black professionals. But privacy is a big part of their model too.

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Sep 1 2016, 1:30pm

As a former airborne ranger with the US military in Hawaii, Anthony Moore he knows a thing or two about privacy. And he continues to be vigilant, even when it comes to online dating.

"What happens with two consenting adults behind closed doors needs to stay behind closed doors, you know what I'm sayin'?" he said with a laugh from his apartment in Boston.

For Moore, dating comes with some very specific challenges. One is finding women who match his ethnicity, as he puts it. "When I go on Tinder, it's like, Caucasian, Caucasian, Caucasian," Moore told me. "The fiftieth one is a black lady, and you hope she's a good one."

The other challenge is the privacy aspect: Moore, 31, is concerned about keeping his online trail of hookups completely under wraps. That means preventing any threat of cast-your-net-wide legal requests that might sneak a peek at his profile or data.

Moore is especially skeptical of companies that change privacy policies on a whim. He's headed to Harvard University this fall to get his MBA, hoping to learn how to combat unfair practices against black business owners. So he knows a thing or two about bait-and-switch policies. To him, an all-black service could be a honey pot for law enforcement, which over the past year has used dating apps during investigations of headline events.

Call it "dating while black"—online dating with the added risk of being profiled on the virtual superhighway.

That's why Moore was thrilled to attend a basketball game at Howard University last April to celebrate the launch of Bae, an all-black dating app founded in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Like Tinder, a Bae user can swipe right if she feels someone's a match. If the match swipes right too, both users can message, swap numbers, sext, whatever.

Image: Bae

But besides Bae's focus on black romantics there's also an intense eye on privacy and security. Users can toggle what kind of info gets presented in his or her profile*. And Bae's founders and creators also strive to manage all conflict and get constructive feedback themselves, rather than outsourcing that task to a large team.

The founders, Jordan Kunzika and brothers Brian Gerrard and Justin Gerrard, do acknowledge they can't operate a totally anarchic fiefdom but are staunchly against exposing users to deep pocket-reaching legal requests. That's why they've taken the unusual preventative measure of encouraging their user base to form a real-life community as well. If there's ever a legal case involving Bae and privacy, a lot of people like Anthony Moore are going to be speaking up for accountability.

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Brian Gerrard is like a modern day Clark Kent. Dressed in a grey polo shirt, khaki shorts, flip flops, and a University of Virginia baseball cap (his alma mater), he spoke softly while sipping kombucha at a Prospect Heights café. He told me how he founded Bae with a brother and another friend because: "our black buddy was saying 'Tinder sucks' while our white buddy was saying the opposite, 'Tinder is great, I get so many dates.'"

That experience is pervasive. Dating site OKCupid surveyed half a decade's worth of online dating action and found black women get far fewer responses from non-black men than their counterparts. And women were much less likely to reply to Asian and black men. Racial bias across 25 million accounts only "intensified" during this period. That's part of reason that apps like Bae, as well as SoulSwipe and MELD, exist.But a few minutes into his mild-mannered spiel with me, Gerrard switched gears and started tearing into the importance of safety and privacy for the online black dating community.

Gerrard said he's spent the past 16 months making sure all users get along and stay in touch—even post-breakup or post-hookup. A "true community" of a quarter million long-term users is his solution for preemptively telling law enforcement: We are not here for your data harvest. And Bae's pages-long privacy clause emphasizes how staff will micro-manage conflict and threats, and comply only with legal requests that are "reasonably necessary."

Gerrard also makes a point of talking to users and staging events called BAEwatch, where users can get to know each other outside the dating experience. Recently, as many as 600 users got together for a night of cruising down the Hudson. Moore told me he met a lot of people "on [his] wavelength" at a Bae-hosted karaoke night in Washington, D.C.

"The idea is to not end up in an Orwellian society. No one had been talking about a secure app for black people, so we made one."

But their model could change. Co-founder Jordan Kunzika, has turned down job offers from Google and Microsoft, but now an appealing, undisclosed buyer for Bae is on the line. (Gerrard says it is "a large tech company" and he expects to reach a decision this fall.) If Bae sells its slick image, it will also sell control over its unique privacy policy and grassroots community.

In the meantime, Gerrard is busy pushing his utopian ethos before his baby might walk off into the real world."Bae is about curating privacy, through strong bonds. We push important news, not just dating advice. The idea is to not end up in an Orwellian society. No one had been talking about a secure app for black people, so we made one. You don't want to wait until someone pulls the rug out from under you," he said.

That could happen given how dating apps, especially minority-focused ones, are increasingly a key part of crime investigation.

Consider what unfolded last December when Syed Rizwan Farook shot and killed 14 public health workers in San Bernardino, California. After law enforcement discovered that he and his wife Tashfeen Malik used an array of niche online dating services like Dubai Matrimonial, the FBI and Apple were locked in a months-long dispute about unlocking Farook's iPhone. After Apple denied almost a dozen legal requests from the FBI, a court case in California was scheduled for March 22, 2015. But the government obtained a delay on March 21, and unlocked the phone one week later.

Then in June, Orlando gunman Omar Mateen was purportedly unmasked because of the dating apps on his phone: Due to his supposed use of gay apps like Grindr, his attack on a gay nightclub was declared an act of "revenge" not "terrorism".

According to Gerrard, there are 600 million black people globally with a smartphone in their hand. He describes Bae's quarter million users as aged 18 to 35, aspirational, into everything from dating to marriage but ultimately about safety. Over the past 90 days, during a seemingly unending string of police shootings against unarmed black men, Bae has seen a 75 percent increase in user numbers.

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It's no secret that dating apps have to strike a tricky balance. Every user who finds an ideal match is two users lost. Yet every user who gets stung too many times is also another loss. There's a lot of algorithmic filtering that goes into this horse race, but sociologist Eric Klinenberg says Gerrard may be onto something with Bae's social engineering.

Klinenberg is a professor at New York University, and he recently collaborated with comedian Aziz Ansari to produce "Modern Romance," a book about the cultural shifts signaled by online dating. "Niche sites make sense, because racial discrimination is rampant in online dating," Klinenberg told Motherboard. "[I]t can be dispiriting to experience it through rejections and unanswered messages from people who should be good matches."

But this isn't just a case of business savvy. In fact, Gerrard is almost hyper-aware that his lofty goals for Bae could get construed as just another marketing ploy, so he is engaged with a the big picture impact of his app. He already appeared as a talking head on "Original Sin," a six-part National Geographic special about sex (he was on the "Hi-Tech Sex" installment). And he recalled a recent Facebook conference, where he got chatted up about Bae. "People are aware of the power of the black consumer, and how black culture has become so universal," he said. "They're trying to anticipate trends."

Image: Bae

Brian's Gerrard's brother and co-founder, Justin, said they've been studying company transitions and buyouts, to understand what might happen if Bae became a household name like Tinder. Justin's outlook is similar: build up expectations through establishing a brand, so that people will speak up if there are major changes.

Bae's founders have a lot of faith in grassroots growth, and part of that may have to do with Brian's education at Thomas Jefferson's school, the University of Virginia. He regularly returns to campus for naturalization ceremonies of foreign nationals, the most recent of which was in July. He firmly believes in the democracy's promise of giving citizens a right to not be singled out.

"Bae will always be—or have been—a catalyst," Gerrard said "It has at least gotten people to start chipping away at the goal of curating privacy."

"The people will ultimately decide the outcome of this privacy conversation," he added, nodding to whisteblowers like Eric Snowden. Still, Gerrard has a couple of starting blocks to build his community differently. He wants to give users the option to stick badges on their profile, like Black Lives Matter, to help keep that grassroots spirit alive, even in the bedroom.

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Back in Boston, Moore said he now can't imagine a life without Bae. Even if profiling from law enforcement isn't an immediate concern for him, there's always profiling from a potential lover on mostly-white apps like Tinder. He pointed to the rise of other all-black services, like Innclusive, which he describes as AirBnB for black people, as evidence that entrepreneurs and their patrons can see eye to eye. Moore calls it the difference between being a shareholder and a customer.

"There's something sad about the fact that it's necessary," says Klinenberg, on needing niche services across the board, for all aspects of life. It takes on the hue of a segregated Internet, he adds, because "[i]n an ideal world people would be open to dating across the racial and ethnic divide."

"Apps are such an immediate experience, people don't realize all the variables you face if you're a black user," he says. "A lot of us want to support our own, you know? There's a low concentration of people of color here in Boston. I don't know what I'd do without this. Probably be lonely."

Correction: This article previously stated that you could change your profile for each match. But you can actually just toggle and choose what you show in your overall profile.