April 2, 2019 at 11:40 am EDT | by James Wellemeyer
US designates Grindr a national security risk
hookup culture, gay news, Washington Blade
Grindr users are weighing in on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States’ designation that the Chinese-owned gay dating app is a national security threat. (Photo via Bigstock)

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has designated Grindr a national security risk, according to an exclusive report from Reuters published on March 27.

Reuters could not obtain CFIUS’s specific concerns about Grindr for its report, but the designation has prompted Chinese tech company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to put the world’s largest LGBT dating app with more than 3 million daily users up for sale.

Kunlun, which paid $93 million for a majority stake in Grindr in 2016 and purchased the rest of the company two years later, will sell the dating app through an auction. Grindr has hired American investment bank Cowen Inc. to orchestrate this sale. The Reuters report claims executives at the dating app are hoping to attract interest from U.S. investment firms as well as competing apps.  

The news of Grindr’s national security risk designation comes at the same time that the U.S. government has been attempting to increase the safety of personal data of U.S. military members and intelligence personnel.

Grindr declined to comment for the story when the Washington Blade reached out to its press division through email on March 30.

The gay dating app has come under fire previously for security issues, most notably last year when it shared some of its users’ HIV statuses with companies Apptimize and Localytics. The tech analytics firms were hired to test the performance of the app and given users’ HIV statuses and most recent test dates in the process.

Grindr President Scott Chen sparked controversy last November when he said in a Facebook post that “marriage is a holy matrimony between a man and a woman.”

The Blade spoke to several Grindr users through the dating app about their positions on the CFIUS’s designation and Grindr’s forthcoming sale. Many users who were willing to talk for the story and provide their names were not surprised by the security risk label.

“I can see the argument for Grindr being a potential threat, particularly because — if I’m not mistaken — a Chinese company has bought this app. Their data privacy laws are a little different than in the U.S.,” CJ Clark, a Grindr user, said.

Daniel Klein, a 22-year-old university student, said that while his knowledge of U.S. cybersecurity systems is limited, “Grindr is relatively easy to grab information off of.” He cited the release of individuals’ HIV statuses by the company as an example.

But he said security issues on the gay dating app go further than these leaks. Profiles do not require a public photo, name, age, bio, or any information a user does not want to include.

“There is generally no security on Grindr itself,” Klein said. “Anyone can pretend to be anyone. It’s very open to catfishing.”

Despite the potential problems with the privacy Grindr permits its users to have, Klein doubts that the app presents significant national security risks.

“Most government personnel have government phones and personal phones,” Klein said. He speculated that it’s “unlikely they keep Grindr on their government phone.” Therefore, the app “presents as much of a risk as any other app that requires an email and password but has limited security.”

Some users went further, calling the CFIUS’s decision to force Beijing Kunlun Tech to sell Grindr “a double standard” on the part of the U.S. government.

“Bloomberg has reported multiple examples of U.S. companies, specifically DNA/genealogy companies such as FamilyTreeDNA, as having shared user data with 3rd parties such as the FBI and life insurance companies,” Matthew Paloscio, a Grindr user, said. “In the future, life insurance companies could decline or selectively rate applications for life insurance, based upon genetic data even if the applicant is currently in perfect health. Companies voluntarily handing over user data to government agencies in the US has happened and will continue to happen.”

Others view the sale of Grindr as positive, regardless of the reasoning behind it.

Cole Guye, another Grindr user with whom the Blade spoke, said he’s hoping the sale, if to a competitor, brings changes to the popular dating app.

“Honestly, this app is so toxic and tries to gouge people for a cost more than Netflix and I shouldn’t be scared to have a face picture,” he said. “People I’m not interested in who are scary close have sent me threats and making new accounts is too easy for creeps that get banned.”

Some researchers share Guye’s concerns and worry that Grindr and similar apps may have a negative effect on gay men’s health.

A study from Time Well Spent in early 2018 found that 77 percent of Grindr users regretted opening the app after they closed it. It also concluded that Grindr left men feeling more “unhappy” than any other app.

Other Grindr users to whom the Blade spoke didn’t have strong opinions on the designation or the effects of the app itself within the gay community. They simply wished the government would release information on the problems it sees with the app.

“I feel that if there’s a legitimate counterintelligence reason to deem the app a security risk, then the administration should be more forthcoming to the public on the details of the risk,” Zach Banks said.

“If American citizens are at risk of having their private information stolen and distributed, they have a right to know about that,” he added.

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