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Grindr’s Screwing You! (and not very well!) Cybersecurity & the Future of LGBTQIA+ Dating Apps

December 27, 2019

Omaralexis Ochoa

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I want to talk about Grindr. Not only is this iconic app quickly becoming a national security concern, but there are also talks of emerging competitors and where exactly an application like Grindr will fit in the future of dating apps.

As you have seen in recent headlines, the United States has been working actively to retake the controlling investments of the infamous dating app, Grindr, from its new Chinese parent company Beijing Kunlun Tech. It is a company that, today, makes the majority of its revenue from overseas with its portfolio of gaming applications, but in 2016, obtained a 60% controlling stake in Grindr in a transaction worth over $93MM. Eventually, the company did obtain the remaining stake for over $150MM and now owns the app in its entirety. This occurred in a total of two transactions – neither of which were reported to the Commission of Foreign Investment in the United States. (CFIUS). This is actually where the situation gets a bit sticky.

Although the US took no action back in 2016, or 2018, when each respective transaction occurred, the fact that neither was reported to the Commission allowed the US to go back and review them. But why does the raunchiest social media platform for gay men matter to the US government?

Why Does the US Government Care About Grindr?

The US is concerned over how Kunlun – a Chinese-based company – could compromise the information of US military personnel and contractors, with private information on their sexual orientations, HIV statuses, private photos, locations, and more. This is information that, many believe, could compromise US officials and lend them to blackmail.

That makes a bit of sense, as… we all know how Grindr is used. And who hasn’t sent around a pic or two… or seven? (Ha) But jokes aside, the concern isn’t blackmail alone. With Grindr being a location-based application, questionable foreign powers having control over sensitive GPS data about millions of people around the world – including millions of Americans – does become a security risk. Consider an article by Alex Hern from The Guardian, that details how Strava, a location-based social media platform for tracking your run, posed an operational security risk to US military personnel in the Middle East.

According to The Guardian, Strava put out a global heatmap in November 2017 that recorded every Strava run on the platform; highlighting regions all over the world, based solely on location data. It wasn’t long after, that security analysts found an impeccable amount of detail on this map, effectively revealing the locations of several remote US military bases. The article goes on to specify that in Afghanistan, this heatmap revealed some forward operating bases as bright, white spots where Strava users in the area – almost exclusively foreign military – completed runs.

Therefore, it isn’t just speculation to say that Grindr does in fact pose a risk for exposing user data, be it from members of the US military or everyday civilians. In fact, Grindr already has a history of giving out your private information such as your HIV status.

Grindr Has Fumbled Private Information Before

First reported by BuzzFeed in April 2018, and later corroborated by sources like NPR, Grindr has acknowledged that sensitive information such as users’ HIV status was indeed provided to third parties. These were two companies, Apptimize, and Localytics, who were initially hired to optimize the platform by monitoring how it was being used. According to BuzzFeed, Grindr sent “HIV status and last tested date…together with users’ GPS data, phone ID, and email.” It should be obvious how this could pose a threat to user safety, but BuzzFeed was able to get the opinion of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Senior Technologist and Security Researcher, Cooper Qunitin, who stated:

“It allows anybody who is running the network [on Grindr] or who can monitor the network — such as a hacker or a criminal with a little bit of tech knowledge, or your ISP, or your government — to see what your location is… When you combine this with an app like Grindr that is primarily aimed at people who may be at risk — especially depending on the country they live in… or how homophobic the local populace is — this is an especially bad practice that can put… user safety at risk.”

Now, in light of all of this, Grindr’s Head of Security, Bryce Case, has since confirmed in an exclusive interview with Axios.com, a digital newspaper covering business and international politics, that it will no longer share sensitive HIV information or testing data with any third-party companies. This may well be too-little, too-late, though, as Grindr has already shared this information and it now lives in not one, but at least three places: Grindr, Apptimize, and Localytics. When you compound this with the fact that Grindr has also been owned and operated by Beijing Kunlun Tech for just over a year now, there really is no telling whether the private information of LGBTQIA+ Americans on Grindr has already changed hands to nefarious groups, or even the Chinese government. Suffice it to say: Grindr most certainly has its fair share of problems. However, it’s not the only dating platform out there for LGBT people.

The Future of LGBTQIA+ Dating Apps

Millions of users have flocked to alternative dating applications like Scruff, Hornet, Hinge, and Bumble; all of which provide their own take on relationships for LGBTQIA+ users. The latest contender, however is now Facebook Dating.

Facebook Dating is rather new, and operates as yet another aspect of the Facebook app wherein users can create a separate dating profile and potentially match with new people, and even friends-of-friends. The app in its current state, however, doesn’t allow users to connect with current friends, although there is some discussion that Facebook will soon be unveiling a “Secret Crush” feature that will allow you to select up to nine of your friends to be your “secret crush.” If the two of you are crushing on each other, then that’s a match! Facebook Dating will also implement a matching system that leverages information on your interests, location, and even attended events. According to Vox.com, the concept is meant to reflect the probability of two people being likely to meet in real life anyway, by leveraging this location and events data. Now, back in my heyday of dating, I remember an application called Happn. I found it to be rather unique as the app leveraged your location data in order to match you to others that you have at some point crossed paths with – undoubtedly using pings from your smartphone in order to make the match. The concept was compelling as it cast an air of mystique that suggested love really was just around the corner. I’m glad to see this concept make its way back into the mainstream, and I think it will be a key to Facebook Dating’s success.

However, some critics have remained skeptical that Facebook Dating will be very successful at pairing LGBTQIA+ users, specifically. Grindr’s chief financial officer, Wei Zhou, weighed in telling PinkNews “we are unsure if the platform truly understands the needs of the LGBTQ community particularly in areas of the world where LGBTQ people face tremendous amounts of violence.” After all, Grindr has dominated the gay dating sphere for over a decade now and still commands a user base in the millions. According to PinkNews, however, Grindr has offered to serve as a resource for Facebook Dating as it begins to focus on LGBTQIA+ romance.

Is Grindr Really the Answer?

I would say that Grindr is far from the model candidate to base any app off of; not only from the perspective of design but also from the perspective of ethics. Grindr has been on the decline for many years following scandal after scandal, and no one has put it better than Jon Shadel in the Washington Post. In perhaps the most standout example of Grindr’s decay, Shadel writes “Prejudicial language has flourished on Grindr since its earliest days, with explicit and derogatory declarations such as “no Asians,” “no blacks,” “no fatties,” “no femmes,” “no trannies” and “masc4masc” commonly appearing in user profiles. Of course, Grindr didn’t invent such discriminatory expressions, but the app did enable it by allowing users to write virtually whatever they wanted in their profiles. For nearly a decade, Grindr resisted doing anything about it.”

Anyone who has used Grindr for even an hour can quickly see the cesspool it has become, with blatant racism, transphobia, and yes, even homophobia, plastered across. Grindr is also riddled with users and bots advocating heavily for risky sex practices such as bareback sex, and hard drug use such as crystal meth. It’s therefore alarming to see the New York Times quote Grindr’s founder, Joel Simkhai, in 2014 stating that he “never intended to shift a culture” in regards to user behavior on the app. This is while other top apps have outlined zero tolerance it and flourished. So, if I were in Facebook’s shoes and looking to understand the LGBTQIA+ community, I’d say Grindr is the last place to look. The app has fallen out of touch, and is very much tone-deaf in regards to fixing these problems.

Consider the launch of Kindr – a short-lived PR campaign thrown together by Grindr that attempted to educate users on cultural sensitivity in regards to race. Not only was this program quickly over and done with, but it was ultimately at odds with the core function of the app itself – to filter your preferences based on height, weight, and today still, race. As if that weren’t enough, Grindr’s own president, Scott Chen, is not only a straight man, but he has been quoted by The Guardian stating he believes that marriage is “the holy matrimony between a man and a woman.” Therefore, Grindr is an organization that is fundamentally at odds with the community it serves, and makes for a pretty shitty role model.

Our Community’s Future is in Our Hands

From its pervading issues with protecting user information, and protecting users themselves, as the platform perpetuates hate, oppression and self-destruction, Grindr is a monolith in gay culture that must utilize its influence to benefit the LGBTQIA+ community, and not further divide it. This is something that, unfortunately, must come from the top-down not only with a change in executive leadership to more accurately reflect the community it serves, but a change in business culture that will aim to bring our community together, and not aim to destroy it.

Grindr’s executive-level suite seems to be pervaded by hate, and cisgendered, heteronormativity judging solely by the types of people its led by. As a result, I find it hard to argue that Grindr as a company ISN’T endorsing self-destructive behaviors, such as risky sex and hard drug use, perhaps as a way of harming our community by proxy.

It’s for this reason I urge LGBTQIA+ professionals, and our allies, in the sphere of online dating to continue being exemplars of change, and to fight corporate red-tape that claims LGBTQIA+ empowerment is not possible.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.