Legal Technology

New 'Great Gatsby'-inspired dating app screens users' criminal histories

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Updated: Kimberly Busch is “burned out” by dating apps.

“There were too many creeps,” says the attorney and CEO of AskTheLawyers in Austin, Texas. “There were a few situations where I was talking to people and my gut instinct was ‘this isn’t a good person.’”

While never a victim of violence on those dates, Busch deleted two popular dating apps from her phone.

Her experience mirrors that of many who brave online dating. It is a veritable Wild West where a person can present a persona with no external validation to determine if the information is truthful or is laying the groundwork for a scam— or worse.

“The dating apps don’t do anything to give people instructions on how to be safe,” laments Busch. “[It] seems like a cop-out to me.”

A new dating app called Gatsby is trying to fill this security gap. By running criminal background checks on all potential users and banning those with misdemeanor or felony convictions, the company believes it can make dating safe again. While some welcome this new feature to the dating landscape, others worry it is an imperfect and discriminatory solution to a real problem.

Joseph Penora, CEO and founder of Gatsby, says there is good reason to take dating security more seriously. He points to the United Kingdom National Crime Agency’s 2016 report that found rapes stemming from an initial face-to-face encounter after previously meeting online had increased nearly 458 percent from 2009 to 2014, going from 33 reported incidents to 184. The NCA found that dating apps and websites had created “a new type of sexual offender.”

Launched for Apple and Android this year, Gatsby pulls information from public databases that include criminal records and sex offender registries to determine if someone can use the platform.

The app’s namesake is an allusion to The Great Gatsby. In the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, Jay Gatsby, the main character, “lied and tricked everyone he knew,” explains Penora over email. “We’re trying to prevent such an occurrence on our platform.”

As of July 2015, more than 70 million people had a criminal record in the United States, which is about the same number of Americans with a college degree, reports the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. Having a record might mean a person was convicted of a crime or that a person was arrested and never charged.

Currently a free app, Gatsby doesn’t concern itself with minor offenses, according to Penora. “If you have a parking ticket, speeding ticket, arrested and never convicted or some type of summons you’re not getting banned.”

Gatsby treats all convicted crimes, from minor drug possession to a violent felony, as the basis to ban a user. An appeals process exists for those incorrectly banned.

At its core, The Great Gatsby is about reinvention. Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, shakes off his rural upbringing in North Dakota to become a nouveau riche bachelor throwing boozy, jazz-soaked soirees at his Long Island, New York mansion.

Matthew Stubenberg, attorney and IT director at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service in Baltimore, says a criminal record in America forecloses on the type of reinvention Fitzgerald writes about. People with a criminal record “face discrimination in employment, housing and education” well after they repay their debt to society, explains Stubenberg.

Further, discriminating against those with a criminal record often means doing so against minorities. According to the NAACP, in 2015, African-Americans and Hispanics were 32 percent of the total population, but made up 56 percent of those incarcerated.

“In essence, it could just turn into a dating app for white people,” says Stubenberg.

This critique is common where a criminal record is used as a bar to entry. In 2016, then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro said, “When landlords refuse to rent to anyone who has an arrest record, they effectively bar the door to millions of folks of color for no good reason.”

To this critique, Penora says that dating apps are discriminatory by nature.

“There are dating platforms that require you to be a certain religion, race, wealth status or sexual orientation to join,” argues Penora. “At Gatsby, we don’t care about any of that, we just want our users to be safe while finding love.”

Busch says she would consider using Gatsby, but cautions that “criminal background checks are not an end-all-be-all of safety.”

Even the Prohibition-era bootlegger and scurrilous financier, Jay Gatsby, was never convicted.

Updated at 12:46 p.m. to show the app is currently free to users.

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