An app that checks criminal records won’t make dating safer
If you could ask a potential date any question, what would it be? “Finding out if they had a criminal record,” ran a troubled discussion on Netmums recently, a cry reiterated by Katie Price on Loose Women this week. Now, there’s an app for that: Gatsby, a salve for dating worries that runs criminal record and sex offender register checks on its members every month “to create the safest platform available”, claims CEO Joseph Penora.
“Dating without the baggage”, runs the US app’s tagline – but how could it possibly promise that in the UK?
On the one hand, it sounds like a good idea – rape during a first date committed by men the victims have met on dating apps rose six-fold between 2009 and 2014, reports the National Crime Agency. But currently, criminal record disclosure in England and Wales relies on self-reporting, and it’s the genuinely contrite who would do it – those working on their own rehabilitation. Those without compunction, meanwhile, obviously don’t volunteer information. Gatsby’s operators cannot scroll through a list of recent criminal convictions for England and Wales to double-check users are being honest. There’s a risk people could use the app thinking they were safer than they are.
In any case, predicting the likelihood of a crime on the basis of previous offences is controversial. We know how significant a mitigating “first offence” is in sentencing and how someone who is incarcerated as a juvenile is more than a third more likely to reoffend. But when it comes to personal relationships, most abuse is systemic, with 90% of rapes in England and Wales committed by someone known to the victim prior to the offence. Approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales each year, compared with 12,000 men. Most sexual violence the world over still takes place in longterm relationships, and too many sex offenders slip through the net with a record of unreported abusive behaviour, often known only to terrified-into-silence victims before they reach the courts. Gatsby will do nothing to identify them.
It’s true that knowing someone’s current criminal status could be a matter of life or death – you only have to consider the number of men that abuse or kill their partners while on bail for their prior abuse to see there’s a desperate need for a better way to keep tabs on the dangerous. But while Gatsby may be well-intentioned, it also proposes a myopically glib approach to criminal conviction. Should someone who received a caution as a teenager for drunken and disorderly behaviour, or found themselves on the sex offender register for sending a nude picture of themselves to another teenager, be lumped in with a serious sexual predator?
What Gatbsy’s creators would have done better to tackle wasn’t a date’s potential criminality, but their lack of accountability. The dating industry is beginning to see this as a problem at the root of everything – from the murders of four young men committed by Stephen Port, who used the dating app Grindr to find his victims, to so-called “catfishing”. Of course, people have always been jilted, left pregnant, defrauded and abused. But what our ancestors had to their advantage was a social network that watched them form relationships, making it much harder for criminals to wreak havoc on an individual.
The newest dating apps, meanwhile, are proving it possible to integrate that sense of community protection into tech today. Take BeLinked, which verifies users through LinkedIn, or The Inner Circle, which builds in accountability via Facebook connections displayed on your profile, and holds events where you can meet a date in a safe, public venue.
Gatsby isn’t the solution to a growing problem of an age-old exploitation. Instead, it’s a dangerous misrepresentation of the problem that will dupe victims and potential victims alike.