Existing online, particularly on social media and dating sites, means surrendering some of your personal information. That’s a trade-off that most people have come to accept as part of the modern internet experience, but giving up that information does not mean the same thing to all people. For marginalized groups, particularly members of the LBTQIA+ community, information about their identity could lead to persecution. A new report released Tuesday from cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found that many apps which court LGBTQIA+ users often fail to adequately protect them from oppressive government regimes, and other technology, including facial recognition, could further put this community at risk.
In its report, Recorded Future analyzed five major dating apps that court LGBTQIA+ users, including widely used apps like Tinder and OkCupid, and apps focused on specific parts of the queer community, including Grindr, Her, and Scruff. Its findings suggest that most apps are not doing enough to protect users, particularly those who may be swiping in regions that are oppressive and actively hostile to LGBTQIA+ people. Tinder, for instance, recently introduced a new feature called Traveler Alert that uses their location to warn users when they enter a region where their very existence might be considered a crime. While the feature hides the person’s profile unless they opt-out of the protection, the company has not taken every step to protect its users who may face persecution from oppressive regimes. Russia has required Tinder to store user data, including messages and pictures, on local servers, meaning the Russian government may be able to access the information. The Russian government has long targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly under the regime of Vladimir Putin, and the country recently voted to ban gay marriage. A spokesperson for Tinder tells Mic that the company does not store data on foreign servers, but did not specify further.
Other apps also fall short of fully protecting their users, primarily as the result of collecting and monetizing user data. OkCupid, for instance, has been found to share a significant amount of self-identified user information used to build out their dating profile with other apps. The Norwegian Consumer Council released a report earlier this year that OkCupid was one of several apps that shared information including sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political affiliations, drug use, and more with as many as 135 third-party entities — typically data brokers. Grindr was similarly criticized for failing to protect user data and has come under fire in the past for inadequate data protections when sharing information, including revealing the HIV status of its users. Her, a dating app designed for LGBTQIA+ women, offers some additional protection for users by prohibiting data scraping, but still collects a considerable amount of information provided voluntarily by users that it sells to third-parties.
Scruff, an app designed for gay, bisexual, and trans men, was the one app that Recorded Future highlighted as having sufficient protection for its users. Maggie McDaniel, Vice President of Insikt Group at Recorded Future, tells Mic that Scruff’s biggest advantage is the fact that it doesn’t rely on third-party advertising firms, meaning the app isn’t selling off user data to others. “They have cut ties with ad- and location-data brokers, and established in-house ad and analytics operations to avoid third-party sharing,” she explains. Additionally, Scruff randomizes location data so that their real-time location is never fully identified. Like Tinder, Scruff also provides alerts when users travel to countries that criminalize homosexuality.
McDaniel recommends members of the LGBTQIA+ community read the privacy policies of dating apps before using them in order to fully understand how their data is being collected and used, and what risks that may present. “Users should know which countries own which apps, where the apps’ data is being stored, and make personal decisions before offering their exact location, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political beliefs, drug use, etc.”
Dating apps aren’t the only technology that may make LGBTQIA+ people unsafe. Increasing levels of state surveillance, driven by advancements in technology like facial recognition, can and has been used to target queer people across the globe, including residents of a country and travelers just passing through. Recorded Future’s report noted that LGBTQIA+ activists across Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, and in Asia have been targeted by local and state governments. Earlier this year, The Intercept reported on the ongoing effort in Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation, to weed out and exterminate gay people. In Malaysia, the country’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has pushed back on progress made by LGBTQIA+ activists in the region, stating that the country doesn’t need to copy other nations in accepting gay, bisexual, or trans citizens.
Countries like these are often looking for ways to accelerate their oppression of the LGBTQIA+ community. According to a 2018 report from The Guardian, members of Vladimir Putin’s government were in attendance at a demonstration of a new technology that could supposedly use facial recognition to identify gay people. The artificial intelligence program allegedly could identify a gay man 81 percent of the time and a gay woman 71 percent of the time. The technology was widely derided as pseudoscience and called “junk science” by LGBTQIA+ groups, but that is unlikely to prevent an oppressive regime from using it or a similar program in an attempt to target or accuse people of being gay.
With these types of threats looming, McDaniel says that staying educated and informed is the best defense. For members of the LGBTQIA+ community who may be traveling, she advised they “arm themselves with information about potential stigmatization and discriminatory laws in any unfamiliar travel destinations.” She says that if you’re traveling and planning on using apps of any kind, be they dating or social media, users should “exercise caution when using apps that use location data and learn more about the privacy policies of specific apps, paying particular attention to the apps that do not obfuscate geolocation data in countries with a poor stance on LGBTQIA+ rights.”
If meeting with people in foreign countries, exercise extreme caution. Dating apps in particular have been used in the past to target LGBTQIA+ people. Bigots have posed on dating apps in an attempt to lure gay, bisexual, or trans people into a situation where they can commit acts of violence against them. “Take steps to confirm the identity of the person, arranging to meet in a public place, and informing a trusted contact to mitigate the threat of law enforcement or criminal entrapment,” McDaniel says.