For gay men in the dozens of countries that criminalize their sex lives, social networking can be a blessing or a curse.
High-tech dating apps and social media have enabled countless men to expand their circles of friends and lovers in settings that are hostile to any overt trace of homosexuality. Yet the same technology that they gratefully embrace can expose them to the risk of blackmail, arrest and violence.
In one chilling case earlier this year in Pakistan, police arrested a paramedic on suspicion of killing three men he had met via the gay social network Manjam, which is based in London but has many users in Asia and the Middle East. The suspect told police he considered homosexuality to be evil.
More recently, bloggers and activists raised concerns about how the popular dating app Grindr could be used to pinpoint a user’s exact location — even a user living where gay sex is outlawed. After complaints mounted, Grindr announced steps this month to reduce the risks for users in countries with a record of anti-gay violence — including Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Liberia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
And during the past week, Grindr posted a warning to its users in Egypt that police — as part of an ongoing crackdown on gays — “may be posing as LGBT to entrap you.” The warning urged users to be careful when arranging meetings with strangers.
Grindr’s CEO, Joel Simkhai, says his Los Angeles-based company strives to maximize security and privacy for all its users, yet he cautions that governments hostile to gays can muster powerful surveillance resources.
“They have a lot of control and smarts on their side,” he said. “We try to use the latest technologies on our end, but so do they, so this tension will continue.
“If your security is a big issue for you,” he added, “a location-based service might not be the best option.”
The potential perils of social networking have attracted the attention of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a New York-based watchdog group.
Hossein Alizadeh, the commission’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said he has tracked two main categories of cases in the region — some in which blackmailers connect with gay men and then threaten to expose them, others in which cyber police and morality police use dating apps and chatroom sites to entrap and arrest gay men.
He cited one recent case in Saudi Arabia involving a man from Jordan who was jailed for eight months, then deported. “No lawyer was willing to defend this poor soul,” Alizadeh said.
Another Saudi entrapment case was recounted recently on the blog of Scott Long, founder of the LGBT-rights program…