SAN FRANCISCO

OkCupid's New Venture, Combosaurus, Worries Privacy Advocates

02/14/2013 02:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 14, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO -- Of all the romances sparked by online dating site OkCupid, the one that's lasted the longest is between its founders and the endless data provided by the over one million users that use the site each day.

A new outgrowth of the website that launched in a beta version last month is taking that relationship to a whole new level -- while raising the concerns of privacy advocates.

Combosaurus, the venture in question, tests all the data entered into OkCupid by users to see what clusters together. If advertisers can gain access to such deeply personal information, it would revolutionize the way they reach consumers.

"OkCupid and similar sites collect extremely sensitive ... information on users, such as data about medical conditions, drug usage, and sexual preferences," Rainey Reitman, activism director at the the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Huffington Post. "Users who share this information are doing so to find relationships, likely not realizing the data will be mined for marketing purposes."

But that personal data, and OkCupid's ability to analyze it, rests at the very core of the company's mission. "When you have a hammer, everything ends up looking like a nail," OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagan told HuffPost. We were "founded by four math majors, so we had a hammer of math and data looked like a nail that we could attack."

In contrast to the psychological models used by competitors like eHarmony, OkCupid dives deeply into the wealth of data provided by its users, many of whom visit the site daily. The company's army of engineers and data scientists use that information to improve the site's algorithm for making love connections and to expound on some of the juiciest tidbits on their popular OkCupid blog. (Who knew a woman saying she likes the taste of beer would be a very strong indicator of her willingness to have sex on the first date?)

When the company was acquired by InterActive Corp. (which also owns Match.com, Ask.com and College Humor) for $50 million in 2011, Yagan began directing much of his attention toward OK Cupid Labs, a research group with a base in San Francisco dedicated to revolutionizing the future of online dating.

OK Cupid Labs' recent ventures include a mobile app that circumvents entering large amounts of text and a since-aborted attempt to apply the company's dating algorithm to matching potential roommates.

Combosaurus, which premiered at the New York Tech Meetup earlier this month, may be the most intriguing product yet.

"On OkCupid you can declare an interest on your profile and basically we've had 10 or 15 million interests tagged on peoples' profiles," explained Yagan. "You may have 'basketball' and 'sushi' and I have 'U2' and 'Coca-Cola.' By virtue of doing that, we know that, in your mind, sushi and basketball are correlated and U2 and Coca-Cola are correlated. If you look at this aggregated over millions and millions of people, you can see these influences really distinctly."

With Combosaurus, someone can discover that people who like, say, Ayn Rand and electronica music also enjoy the television show "House," and that the favorite movie of people with a penchant for both cigarettes and lemonade happens to be "A Clockwork Orange."

While toying around with the program is fun, its true power lies behind the scenes.

"Of course it has advertising potential," said Yagan, who noted the team is still figuring out precisely what they're going to do with the product. "Down the road, this is a treasure trove. Just with market research, knowing what things are correlated with what. For instance, when someone buys an iPhone, what are the other 10 things they're likely to want to buy?"

Social networking sites like Facebook present similar opportunities for marketers, but the information collected by dating sites may have a leg up. It is more specific and tends to reflect someone's idealized self. That idealized self is the person who users feel would be most attractive to others -- a bull's-eye for advertisers looking to craft effective messaging campaigns.

The company insists, that when it gives user data to its external partners, it only does so in an aggregated form, leaving the personal information of each individual user protected. "From a company policy, we never sell or give out personally identifiable information," Justine Sacco, InterActive Corp.'s director of corporate communications, told HuffPost. "We, of course, like most other sites, do work with advertisers to give them insight into our demographics, but this is really an overview of our users."

But privacy advocates remain wary of such claims, pointing to a recent study (albeit one that didn't look at OK Cupid directly) showing that it's often possible to use data from multiple social networks to de-anonymize such data and determine a person's identity.

Even if someone's personal information remains secure, most users are likely unaware that the information they enter could be used for multiple purposes.

OkCupid's privacy policy states that personal information collected through the site can be used to "perform research and analysis about your use of, or interest in, our products, services, or content, or products, services or content offered by others."

Reitman dismissed the legal fine print. "Companies like OkCupid may point to legal agreements to defend their policies," he said. "Unfortunately, these agreements are rarely read."

Correction: The story initially stated Yagan moved to a role heading OK Cupid Labs after the company was acquired in 2011, at that time his official title then became CEO of Match Inc.

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