Geolocating underage users on a 'sugar daddy' dating site

Geolocating underage users on a 'sugar daddy' dating site

Organisation: The Times & The Sunday Times (London) (United Kingdom)

Publication Date: 04/05/2017


Size of team/newsroom:large

Description links young women with 'sugar daddies' willing to pay for their company. It markets itself to students but claims to have a strict over-18s policy. Using computational techniques, The Sunday Times exposed how girls as young as 15 could be identified on the site, leaving them vulnerable to stalking and blackmail. Unlike most social media and dating sites, SeekingArrangement failed to remove crucial metadata from images uploaded by users. EXIF data is embedded in an image when it is taken, and includes the time, the make and model of the camera, and in some cases the exact location. Our investigation found location data in photographs uploaded by more than 1,700 British users, including at least 270 teenagers, often revealing their home addresses. The project was a collaboration between the Sunday Times Data Team, represented by Louis Goddard, and news reporters Rebecca Myers and Robin Henry. We worked together from identifying the flaw to publishing the story on the front page of The Sunday Times, using a mix of computational and investigative techniques.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The Sunday Times Data Team differs from most other newsroom data teams in the UK in that we focus on investigations, often with a security angle. This project was no different. The story emerged from a tip by Rebecca Myers that underage girls could be operating on sugar daddy sites. The Data Team quickly identified the problem with EXIF data on SeekingArrangement, based on past experience investigating dark net markets. Commenting on the investigation, the NSPCC -- the UK's leading child protection charity -- said that it was 'gravely worried'. The story also prompted the National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to request access to the data, potentially leading to criminal investigations. Despite claiming to have been aware of the EXIF issue for six months, it took The Sunday Times's investigation to force SeekingArrangement to fix the problem, making all users of the site safer. SeekingArrangement also took action to prevent underage users from being exploited on the site.

Technologies used for this project:

Having discovered EXIF data in users' profile images, we created a Python script to mimic the site's search function, programatically accessing the profiles of users based in the UK. The script recorded latitude and longitude from every image and exported the results as a CSV file, along with key information on each user: name, stated location, stated age, etc. We then uploaded this CSV to a Google Fusion Table, plotting each user on a map of the UK. This Fusion Table was used by Sunday Times reporters Rebecca Myers and Robin Henry as a key tool when identifying underage users of the site, combined with address information from the LexisNexis TraceIQ database.
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