Life

In many countries, hook-up apps expose gay men to blackmail, arrest, violence

High-tech gay dating apps and social media services have enabled countless men to expand their circles of friends and partners in settings that are hostile to any overt trace of homosexuality. Yet the same technology that they gratefully embrace exposes them to the risks of blackmail, arrest and violence.
High-tech gay dating apps and social media services have enabled countless men to expand their circles of friends and partners in settings that are hostile to any overt trace of homosexuality. Yet the same technology that they gratefully embrace exposes them to the risks of blackmail, arrest and violence.

“The lure of being with other people like yourself — it’s something people have a deep desire for, even when there are incredible risks,” said Andre Banks, executive director of the international gay-rights group All Out.

For location-based dating apps such as Grindr, the security challenges are especially acute because of the very feature that makes them popular. They are designed to help a user make contact with other users in his vicinity — showing their photos and indicating how close they are.

Users’ precise locations are not shown during regular use of the app, but controversy arose earlier this year when a Grindr user in Europe was able to determine near-exact whereabouts of thousands of other users, including some in countries with anti-gay laws. This was done via a technique known as trilateration — recording other users’ distance from three different locations.

Confronted with criticism, Grindr announced steps this month to reduce the risks for users in countries with a record of anti-gay violence.

“Any user who connects to Grindr is these countries will have their distance hidden automatically by default,” the company said.

Launched in 2009, Grindr says it now has about 2.1 million active monthly users in the U.S. and 2.9 million abroad, including many in countries that outlaw gay sex. The company reports about 17,400 average monthly users in the United Arab Emirates and more than 4,200 in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Another globally popular gay dating app, SCRUFF, also has taken steps to address security concerns.

SCRUFF’s CEO, Eric Silverberg, said recent technical modifications enable users to continue learning about other users in their vicinity, but seek to thwart any entrapment efforts by refraining from listing the users in order of their proximity.

“I think you’ll see both the users and the apps getting smarter,” Silverberg said. “It takes both sides.”

Launched in 2010 and based in New York City, SCRUFF claims 7 million users, more than half of them outside the U.S.

For users in countries hostile to gays, SCRUFF plans to post country-specific alerts detailing the scope of anti-gay laws. The company also says it will make “hide distance” a default setting in such countries, while warning this may not always guarantee security.

Grindr recently shared with The Associated Press some of the responses it received from an informal survey of users in countries where gay sex is outlawed.

A Venezuelan living in the United Arab Emirates said Grindr was widely used there despite worries that the UAE secret police sometimes create fake Grindr profiles in order to make arrests. He said one acquaintance managed to avoid arrest by paying a bribe, while another served a 3-month jail term before being deported.

A user from Ghana said some of his friends had been beaten and robbed by men they had met on Grindr who had claimed to be gay. Yet he also credited the app for helping him meet some “good guys.”

© 2014, Associated Press, All Rights Reserved.
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