The Tinder Hacker

When I asked Sean about his hobbies, I wasn’t prepared for what he said.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

After a couple hours of swiping on Bumble not so very long ago, I had exactly one decent match, a programmer in San Francisco. He had an honest face slung on two good cheekbones, and he posed with acceptable-enough props (guitar, martini, ’90s-era Macintosh). Naturally, I messaged him about the computer. After a back-and-forth about the game Crystal Quest, he suggested we hang out.

Over drinks, he told me that he had grown up poor in rural Michigan and that hacking in the early days of the internet had saved him. He moved to the Bay Area after high school, hoping to be near his tech idols, the “Phone Phreaks” he’d read about on the internet. The Phone Phreaks were men and women of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s who obsessively explored — even infested — the telephone system to understand how it worked. As historian Phil Lapsley writes, “They listened to the clicks and clunks and beeps and boops to figure out how calls were routed. They read obscure telephone company technical journals.” Legend has it that one hacker took a prize whistle out of a Captain Crunch box and, realizing it blew at the same frequency that indicated payment for long-distance calls, used the whistle to make free calls around the world, earning him the moniker Captain Crunch. (Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak so admired Captain Crunch they hunted him down for a meeting.)

Sean* loved these nerd hobbyists. “Keyword being ‘hobbyist,’” he told me. “The people coding things for fun in their basement.” Sean was a good, self-effacing storyteller with a gentle voice and he leaned forward as if to apologize for his height. I asked him if he had hobbies — a dreadful question, I know. Like his idols, he said, he liked to experiment and code.

Code what? I asked.

Well, for instance, a Tinder hack.

It all started when Sean recruited his close friend and roommate Haley to create a Tinder profile. Haley, in the words of a Tinder user who would soon encounter her, was a “tall, dark, younger, better-looking version of Kim Kardashian.” Together Sean and Haley selected her profile photos — Haley lounging in a tube with a serving of side boob, Haley in shorts leaning on a baseball bat. Sean wanted her to appear seductive but approachable. Once finished, Sean ran two rather mischievous programs.

The first program had her dummy account indiscriminately swipe right on some 800 men. The second program was one that Sean had spent months coding. It paired men who matched with Haley with one another, in the order that they contacted her. A man would send a message thinking he was talking to Haley — he saw her pictures and profile — and instead another dude would receive the message, which, again, would appear to be coming from Haley. When the first dude addressed Haley by name, Sean’s code subbed in the name of the man receiving the message.

As soon as they ran this code, it was off to the races. Conversations streamed in, around 400 of them unfurling between the most unlikely people, the effect something like same-sex Tinder chat roulette.

“There was a certain breed of guy that this really worked on,” Sean told me. “It wasn’t the kind of guy looking for a girlfriend or looking to talk or be casual. It was the guy looking for a hookup.” And those guys cut to the chase, thrilled at how down “Haley” was to sext, thrusting their way through any miscommunication. (Remember, both dudes think the other is Haley.)

In fact you won’t sleep at all

Haha I like that idea!

Oh I won’t? Will I be awake with you ontop of me ;)

Haha getting excited in the middle of the day, thank you..!

Oh yeah, ontop, behind, in front, down

Haha I’m pretty excited too so you’re not alone. I’m so excited that it’s hard inside my scrubs

Ooh especially behind with my hands on your hips and bouncing you off me while you scream my name


Is it wet underneath your scrub?

It is, it is wet under your pants?

Got a boner tbh

Did I shocked you? ^^

Haha that you have a boner?

Yeah boner is part a women being exited :p

Sean had created a “dictionary” of words that he coded to automatically swap with other words. Aside from “Haley,” “man” transmuted into “woman,” “dude” to “chick,” “penis” to “vagina.” But the system was imperfect. It was glitchy. Spaces weren’t accounted for: “Argument” became “arguwoment.” “Manhattan became “womanhattan.” And Sean didn’t factor in some obviously gendered words like “dad” or “girl”; “lady” or “boner;” “hard” or “wet” which led to conversations like this one (words that the code swapped are italic):

Got me a boner…

Awomanly one

An aggressive one

That bites people

Ain’t nothin strange about a lady boner

What else does it do

Still, a number of the men were unfazed. Sometimes they went deep and bonded.

I dearly miss my family and visit them once a year. But I’m not really homesick. I love Turkey, the culture, the food, the scenery but I’m not religious or traditional and my values aren’t tied to a geography, does that make sense? Do you carry the characteristics of a Cali girl?

Ya that makes sense. I’ve never been that far east but I can imagine that the cultural values are pretty differnt. What do you mean by the characteristics of a Cali girl?

This is a deep subject we can talk about later but I think everyone should have his/her own values, and pick the cultural values that fit into his/her and make sense, and not worry about the rest. By characteristics of a Cali girl I mean hippies at heart that hug trees, use drugs, never left california and scared of rain.. Just kidding :).

I like the way you talk and think about things :) 

Eventually, inevitably, gender entered the conversation:

like the way you talk as well :). It’d be fun to continue this conversation in person. Is your alcohol rule strict? How about meeting up at a wine bar or a tea lounge? I know some cool venues :).

Ya I’d love to continue talking in person. And the alcohol rule is strict for me, but I don’t have any problem with other people drinking or being around it. Lemme give you my big disclaimer though first. I’m a single dad with a two year old daughter who is with me half the time. I know that for a lot of women it’s a deal breaker, and if it is for you then no hard feelings on my end.

A kid isn’t a deal breaker for me. But what do you mean you are a single ‘dad’? You mean these pictures aren’t yours?? Or was it just a typo?

What do you mean?

Hi this is getting a bit weird. If you are joking about being awoman vswoman, please don’t. Are you the female in the pictures?

No, there’s aren’t any females in my pictures. I have a beard and tattoos and all the other male stuff. Maybe you confusing me with someone else? But I looked at my profile and all the pictures are of me and I’m awoman.

I’m a male, awoman. I have a vagina not a vagina

Sean told me the dictionary’s imperfections were deliberate. “If it were perfect, it wouldn’t be interesting,” he explained. “You need the part of the joke where the epiphany happens — where they realize someone is messing with them. Without that, there’s no hilarity.”

When he first told me this, I kept repeating, “That’s hilarious,” mostly in disbelief at how easily he’d broken into Tinder. I wanted to see the conversations — to see how people responded — and I almost immediately asked if he would share them. He agreed. But then, when I followed up by text several times afterward, he didn’t send anything. It dawned on me that maybe I’d been had: I texted to ask if the person he’d actually pranked was ME.

He replied quickly this time, inviting me to his github account and telling me to be very careful with any identifying information. I opened the folder and began reading the exchanges right away. I cackled and I cringed. One man opened with, “Can we have sex right now?” only to snag an appreciative response: “Lol yes. [Sunglasses face].” Another man began, “Meet. Grope. Head. Doggy?” To which the man he had matched with replied, “Everything sounds good!!” Much to my surprise, in a couple hundred pages of chatter, I didn’t see a single dick pic. This was the utopia of heterosexual males dating heterosexual males: a world where no one was offended by an overture like “Meet. Grope. Head. Doggy?” Two men even engaged in some consensual S&M role-playing, a fantasy built on a fantasy:

If you grow on me, I may not fancy killing you. But may tie you up and keep you from the outside world.

That’s what I’m talking about!

Sounds like you find some weird agressive animalistic behaviors hot. :p

I’m a pretty big guy, are you gonna roofie me?

No. Id rather give u mdma so ur happy and dtf. I don’t like hooking up with passed out women.

Also, it’d be great if none of ur other personalities were male. Lol.

On his computer, Sean could see full exchanges flitting by in real time. The first night they ran the program, Haley and Sean laughed hysterically. It was thrilling to know he had orchestrated these encounters, that his code was working and running entirely by itself. Soon Sean began showing the hack to a couple friends — they’d known he’d been coding it for months. One of them brought beer to Sean’s house after work just for the privilege of watching it in real time. “He thought it was magical,” Sean told me. Sean’s favorite exchange unfolded during one of those evenings: a restaurant manager and a chef who had overlapped at Saison, a Michelin-star restaurant, marveled at one another’s culinary credentials and tried to place one another.

Several days into the prank, Sean remembers Haley texting with alarm from a bar. On her phone, she could see the two halves of conversations separately, and she wasn’t always able to follow who was talking to whom. But on that evening, she could tell that two men were planning to meet and she felt a stomach-mangling, subwoofer-like pulse in her throat. “They could show up to a bar and explain whatever they’re wearing and realize it’s a huge joke and feel humiliated,” Haley told me. “I was like, oh I don’t like where this is going anymore. This was supposed to be funny.”

Haley, who had gone along with the prank because she thought Tinder was “lame,” began to regret the whole enterprise. “You’d see pictures of some of these guys and you’d start to feel bad. Some of them were really sweet.” One was so surprised that “Haley” said he was attractive that he couldn’t help but eventually circle back to the comment “And you mean that compliwoment? That I am hot?”

“They just want company and we’re mocking them,” Haley told me. “After a while I was like, Who am I to say how people should meet each other?

Sean hadn’t expected conversations to go so far that people would arrange to meet. He was stunned. At first, he was tempted to spy on the date, which was at a café/bar in North Beach: “It would have been comedic gold.” But the more he thought about it, the more he lost his nerve. It wasn’t going to be so enjoyable from their perspectives, and what if something went awry? What if the encounter turned violent? It was kind of cruel. He began to shut down conversations when Haley or he noticed men were fixing to meet. Suddenly he’d manually unmatch them, so that the unsuspecting men’s increasingly confused missives could only be seen by Haley. Shortly after, Sean went a step further. He added lines to his code to change any phone number to his Google Voice number, with its 415 area code. People couldn’t figure out what was wrong with their phones, or who to blame. (“have a good workout and fix your phone,” one man messaged.) Sean then modified the Tinder location data so that men in New York or San Francisco were led to believe that Haley was on the opposite coast. (“Planning a visit to the east coast I suppose? Or just swiping around random locales?”)

In the ensuing chaos, users generally had one of two theories. They either thought Tinder was buggy and fucking with them (“Must be a glitch in the app. Agajn sorry for the confusion”). Or they thought their correspondent was buggy and fucking with them.

While users readily doubted the app, and one another, they never considered the third explanation: that a skinny Midwesterner in a jean jacket was fucking with them — and recording their conversations. But tech is made by humans, and will be surveilled by humans. After a week of his hack, Sean told me, he decided too many people were getting hurt. And he was wasting too much of his time watching it. He decided to shut down the code.

But what motivated Sean in the first place? He told me that, as with the Phone Phreaks, he had started with a technological curiosity. In his case, about Markov chains.

Applied to language, a Markov chain is an algorithm that draws on a database of source material (a “dictionary”) and analyzes the material’s linguistic patterns in order to generate predictive phrases and sentences (think of your phone’s predictive text). One Twitter bot that especially inspired Sean used Moby Dick and Fifty Shades of Grey as its dictionary. (“Advanced, and Ahab, putting out his hand clasps my hand, he tugs my earlobe, rhythmically. It’s so soft, skimming underneath. It’s so big…”). To top it, he concluded, he’d have to turn to Tinder, that cesspool of lust and loneliness and hope. His friend group was constantly discussing first messages and pick-up lines, like look at this creepy fucking message, and I can’t believe this guy thinks this will work. He wanted to build a Markov dictionary based on first exchanges, based on mens’ attempts to distinguish themselves through language and to see what they could get — or get away with.

His plan was to hoard first pick-up lines sent to someone like Haley’s account and then to program a Twitter bot to use that material to algorithmically generate new lines. But when he started looking into Tinder, he discovered an unpublished application programming interface (API) — essentially, a guide to what code you need to write to be able to interact with the app. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter publish APIs to encourage developers to make apps for them. Sean suspected that Tinder had a secret API so that others could develop the Windows phone version of the app. Since that phone was used by so few people, companies seldom invested in developing Windows apps; instead, they let the community of users build things for themselves. Once he discovered Tinder’s API, Sean thought to himself: Why make a bot if I can connect people directly? (According to Sean, the Tinder API is still open and hackable. A Tinder spokesperson replied, “We are always working to improve the Tinder experience and continue to implement measures against the unauthorized use of our API.”)

Sean spent more than a dozen Saturday afternoons tinkering. First, as a proof of concept, he baited women with his own account and matched them to one another. “It wasn’t really that funny,” Sean told me. “I don’t mean to be sexist or anything. The girls just were not as creepy or as hilarious as guys are. They start talking about school and there was no fun to be had.” That’s when Sean recruited Haley.

At the time, Sean was working in systems operations at a major public utility company and a friend of his there was helping him whiteboard — techspeak for “brainstorm.” During lunch breaks, they’d puzzle out how to efficiently match men together and make sure their messages flowed smoothly. Sean was energized. “It was a part of programming that I’ve never experienced,” he said. And it deepened his understanding of code — “unknowns and black holes just started clicking and clicking and clicking.” But when his co-worker’s girlfriend, an attorney at Apple, learned what they were up to, she was alarmed. This could potentially be considered wiretapping, a prisonable offense, she warned. Nervous, Sean debated whether to continue his project.

Many of the phone phreaks had done things that were technically illegal, Sean knew. They snuck into telephone company buildings and wired their own phones in there and sifted through the company trash. Others used their blue boxes to wiretap callers. The police and FBI investigated a number of them, with a few ending up in prison. Did they regret it? Sean wondered. And was hacking so different? In fact, one of the first contemporary uses of the word “hack” appeared in a 1963 MIT student newspaper article about undergrads “hacking” the phone system. Technically hacking doesn’t mean breaking into something; it means the use or manipulation of technology to achieve something beyond its intended use or design. Its intent can be neutral, positive, or negative: Gray hat, white hat, or black hat, as some put it.

Ultimately, Sean concluded that his prank was gray hat, for two reasons. First, he wasn’t targeting specific individuals to spy on. He wasn’t trying to extract information. Second, the conversations he was observing were ostensibly introductory. He wasn’t eavesdropping on a revealing discussion between old friends or business associates. He was observing how people presented themselves, for the first time, to others. The only thing he regretted, he told me, was that they thought they were talking to a hot woman. “These guys were looking for something. You have a nerd on Tinder and all of the sudden you get Haley, who’s an attractive woman, and they start talking and connecting and this person starts to feel good about themselves, which they should, but to have that be a lie, to be a joke, is pretty cruel.” Though, of course, that was also the point.

Not so long after the prank, Haley and her boyfriend broke up and she moved to New York. There, in a bar on the Lower East Side, a dude recognized her — “from Tinder,” he said. She’d never met him, so it was clear he knew her from Sean’s stunt. She had no idea what he thought she’d messaged him. Drunk, she pretended not to know what he was talking about. But he persisted, calling her out for messing with him. This, of course was also another strategy to keep talking to Haley in the bar. Because, deep down, he still had hope.

I couldn’t square Sean with the meanness of it all. He seemed kind and open. I later learned that after our date some tourists stopped him for directions, and he ended up hanging out with them until three in the morning, taking them from one bar to the next. The next day, he texted me “good morning” with a sunshine emoji, which was entirely earnest, I think. But because I was aware of his technical prowess, it also felt a little sinister. Was it bait? Could he hack into my phone? The night before, I had also received a stranger electronic communication, which I debated whether to mention here: As I was walking home from our date, I got a call and looked down at my phone to see my own name. I was stunned. I let it ring. When it stopped, I looked at my call log, and my name wasn’t there. I began to assume that I’d hallucinated it. I never asked Sean because, for one, it was likely an unrelated technical glitch and, secondly, asking seemed like accusation. At the very least, it would betray the fact that his hack, which I had found so remarkable, had also clearly unnerved me.

Sean told me he didn’t disdain Tinder or wish its users harm. At the time he programmed the hack, he was in a committed relationship with a woman he’d met on the platform and whom he dated for two years. Hell, when I first met him, we were sitting across from one another because of Bumble. Still, I wondered if part of the reason Sean felt comfortable hacking Tinder was that as a relatively handsome man, he didn’t approach the platform with the usual desperation. The hack enabled him to dissociate from his fellow men. The conversations that ensued were proof of his success, a sort of exhilarating applause.

But Sean had another take on it. The men, he thought, were simply getting what they were dishing. It was incumbent on them to determine whether the person they were talking to was … real. But was he retaliating against the misogyny of the internet or actively making things worse, sowing doubt and mistrust among us hapless would-be daters?

Needless to say, I never used a dating app again — in no small part because I imagined Sean reading every message. I doubt he’d actually do that, but it seemed entirely possible someone else would. Sean and I met up again to talk about this story, but we never went on another date. He was moving to New York and I was getting back together with my now-husband.

About a year after the prank, Sean applied for another tech job. His interviewer asked him about his hobbies. Sean gave the same answer he’d given me, anecdotes and all. He even whiteboarded it out. The interviewer wasn’t concerned about the ethics of the thing. What impressed him was the originality of the idea and the problems his code solved, the way he’d catalyzed conversations that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. Sean came out of this date triumphant: he got the job.

*Names have been changed.

The Tinder Hacker