OPN Shraddha Walkar
Undated photos of Shraddha Walkar Image Credit: Supplied/ANI

Even writers of gothic literature would have been lost for words. A young man meets a woman on a dating app, three years later he kills her, chops her body into 35 pieces and keeps them in a newly purchased fridge.

The man then logs back to dating apps. For six months, life goes on while the victim’s body lies in the freezer. Multiple women come and go, strangers he befriends again on dating apps. Sometimes he opens the same fridge where the body parts lie and serves them water or something stronger.

If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was a new age book, digital dystopia would be a lead role. Aftab Poonawala strangled his live-in partner Shraddha Walker, she is dead, and he was back, photoshopped. Anonymity in cyberverse is the gift that keeps on giving.

Married playing at being single, bullies sharing life coaching tips or a murderer prowling for a date -- the possibilities for deviant performance are endless.

Delhi police are still scouring through the Mehrauli forest in Delhi for Shraddha's mortal remains to collect evidence in the murder case Image Credit: ANI

Shrinking the world one app at a time, the world wide web swears by this maxim, a comfort that allows cyber space to constantly dig in, algorithms to kick -- in to reinvent and keep an audience hooked.

Dating apps are another off-shoot. From Bumble, Hinge to Tinder 31 million users have been swiping right in India making it the second largest market for dating apps.

But are dating apps another online toy that entices yet with a mechanism that needs some fine tuning? Or is its fallback India’s lack of urgency when it comes to an individual’s data privacy? After befriending each other on the dating app Bumble, Shraddha lived for three years with an alleged killer.

The pandemic sent more people online while craving the offline. Loneliness, disruptions, uncertainty all met at the intersection of rose-tinted thoughts of comfort and companionship, dating apps play on the feeling that you are not alone. 9 out of 10 Gen Z Indians logged on calling the experience liberating, says a Tinder survey.

Past reactions spawn the possibility of dismissing this as a big city phenomenon or upper- class shenanigans but that is underestimating its calling. Small towns and tier II cities like Surat, Jaipur, Patna have seen a surge, with a three-fold increase in usage across apps. 70% of those using dating apps in India do not live in the metros.

Small towns and tier II cities like Surat, Jaipur, Patna have seen a surge, with a three-fold increase in usage across apps

In the US, despite the popularity of these apps, 39% of adult men and an overwhelming 53% of adult women admit that these apps are not a safe way to meet people.

In India there are no comprehensive laws around dating apps and filtering could be akin to verifying people on the street where thousands are constantly changing directions. But if banks do it, is it intent that stops these companies who are more receptive to financial scams than personal fraud? Data is being leaked even without due diligence.

French journalist Judith Duportail’s book ‘Love Under Algorithm’ that deep dived into algorithm transparency or its lack of points at how loopholes make the unsuspecting addicted, a ‘good’ match could become a match made in heaven if they just stayed the course online.

“Love under algorithm is a game of which rules are unknown to us.” In this playground of the nameless, verification protocols in place now are superfluous, you are only as exposed as you allow yourself to be.

More on the topic

Dating apps are no different from social media apps like Facebook and Instagram where identity shared is not always the true picture. Is there another Aftab lurking in the domains playing out a fantasy? Users say it is all about their gut feeling and that too only when they meet in person.

Meeting a ‘match’

A foolproof app is like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it doesn’t exist. But experts say two can play the game by not sharing personal information and locations while meeting a ‘match’ in a public setting.

Romance or hookup, both must bow before a safety-first mantra. Also watch your glass, they caution. Forget drinks, even water is being spiked. The modus operandi of a gang including two women that was busted earlier this year was to befriend through dating apps, meet at a hotel and rob after lacing drinks.

Popular apps have been probed for breaching GDPR compliance by sharing personal information with third parties including for advertisements, they call it personalizing the experience. Accountability is a slippery slope most companies don’t want to try climbing but with unknown boundaries what is the safety net for a user?

In India consent is absent in most discourses and with personal data privacy being shortchanged, assumed is interpreted as implied consent.

Online platforms do not need explicit permission to collect sensitive information and users say reporting suspicious behaviour needs time and patience. It is each for themselves and the ending as Shraddha’s gory killing shows is not always a match made in digital heaven.