Police in Australia have proposed the scanning of conversations on dating apps and allowing officers access to sexual assault reports made on them, prompting debate about user privacy and safety.

Last month New South Wales (NSW) Police said it was in conversation with Match Group, which owns Tinder, about safety and monitoring procedures. NSW Police detective superintendent Stacey Maloney suggested the possibility of dating apps using artificial intelligence to scan users’ messages for ‘red flags‘ related to sexual violence.

“It’s looking at what type of behavior those users would exhibit and if we can, pick up on that throughout the course of them being on those apps,” she said.

The detective superintendent added that police should be able to access reports of sexual assault made to dating companies. “If they [dating apps] hold information that is suggestive that an offence has been committed, they have a responsibility in my view to pass that on,” she said.

Tinder messages are already monitored to a degree, by an automated system scanning them for potential harassing content. As yet this information is not shared with law enforcement, and to do so in Australia could set a controversial precedent.

Match Group told ABC’s Triple J that while the company was speaking to NSW Police, it had not implemented the force’s proposals. The company, which also owns OKCupid, Plenty Of Fish and Hinge, said it recognized that it had “an important role to play in helping prevent sexual assault and harassment in communities around the world.”

“We are committed to ongoing discussions and collaboration with global partners in law enforcement and with leading sexual assault organizations like RAINN to help make our platforms and communities safer,” Match Group added in a statement.

The NSW Police’s suggestions will have been motivated by desire to crack down on sexual assault, but pushing for access to private messages on dating apps to potentially pre-empt crime raises concerns about the reach of law enforcement.

It also raises questions about what kind of language and behavior might constitute harassment on dating apps. For example, being bombarded with messages could be considered harassment by some users, even if the messages did not contain obvious threats.

The NSW police proposals were not the first controversial dating app-related suggestions made by the force. In March, police commissioner Mick Fuller suggested that the public use a “consent app” to record sexual consent, as a way of cracking down on sexual assault. As has been the case for consent apps rollouts in other countries, the idea faced much criticism.

The general idea that dating apps could be doing even more to protect users from harassment and potential assault is less controversial.

In February Tinder announced that since it introduced a ‘Does this bother you?’ question prompt, which pops up when the app identifies that a potentially harassing message has been received, reports of harassment went up by 37 percent.

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