09 June 2019

gay rights

Swipe right for prison

Dating apps can be wonderful for LGBT people in non-western countries, helping them to connect with the wider community. But the same apps can also be tremendously dangerous, particularly when authoritarian states and vicious criminals start logging on.

By Nichi Hodgson

Dating apps have not only democratised love and sex; they have globalised them too. You can be anywhere in the world, straight, gay or otherwise, and find a partner to suit your predilection, within your postcode, with a simple “swipe right” on your phone screen. It is all so easy, accessible and eminently safe – isn’t it?

Not for the growing LGBT communities in non-western countries, where homosexuality is either still illegal or a social taboo; where life-threatening attacks, extortion or jail sentences are a clear and present danger for those who use apps that in the West were originally designed simply to create a safe virtual space for finding same-sex love.

Grindr, Hornet and Tinder were launched around the world in 2013 and, since then, thousands of users – mainly gay men – have found themselves targeted and at risk of legal prosecution or homophobic attacks, either by government-employed “actors” looking to make arrests under the country’s debauchery laws, or by criminal gangs who take advantage of those who fear being outed.

More than 75 fans at this concert in Cairo were arrested after rainbow flags were displayed

Perhaps the most significant example came in Egypt in 2017. Over 75 people were arrested following a concert in Cairo at which rainbow flags were waved. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, many of the 75 were targeted through dating apps.

These new technologies are being used for new crackdowns. In the decade before the dating apps, and before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013, an average of 14 people a year were arrested in Egypt effectively for their sexuality. In the three and a half years after, the average rose to 66 people. That’s a fivefold increase.

And it’s not just Egypt. Hundreds of similar abuses have occurred in Russia, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, Malaysia and Tunisia, among others.

Activists in front of the Iranian Embassy in Moscow protest about the execution of gays in Iran

The methodology depends on the perpetrator, as well as what they want, although the outcome is always horrible. In some cases, devious networks prime their victims over the course of several weeks, asking for nude pictures and videos that they later use for blackmail in court or for extortion. Many will go as far as having sex with whomever they meet before robbing them, stealing devices, or forcing them to ATMs – sometimes at knifepoint – where they are made to empty out their bank accounts.

These are calculated attacks designed to strip victims of their assets and dignity, leaving them ashamed, fearful and more isolated than they were before they ventured online. Depressingly, they often achieve what they set out to do. Anas, a 29-year-old gay Egyptian, speaking about the “sexploitation” of LGBT people on dating apps, reveals that “every user I know is paranoid about going on dates, and everyone in the community knows someone who has been a victim”.

Though most of the targets of recorded attacks have been gay men, women – lesbians, bisexuals, transwomen and queer women – are vulnerable too. Shana Sumers, head of community at HER, an app for LGBT women, suggests that women might in some respects be at greater risk: “At least for gay men, even when it’s illegal to be gay, there are better organised parties and clubs in public places for them. Women really have no choice but to meet in some very sketchy and lonely locations. As such, we have a whole different bundle of concerns when it comes to protecting them.”

Ugandan men ask for an end to the 'genocide' against LGBTI (known as Kuchu) people

At HER, the team is constantly alert to the potential dangers faced by their users: “In Russia, people using our app know it’s at a very big risk. We constantly monitor what is going on there and can pause the app if we think people are being exploited,” says Sumers.

But this is a measure HER implements unilaterally, which highlights a broader problem: that there is no overall authority to oversee ethical decision-making and best practice for dating apps. As so often in the digital revolution, regulation lags behind the practical implications of transformative technology.

To address this deficit, Article 19, a charity that works with victims and local LGBT groups on the ground, has approached seven major players in the dating industry, asking them to collaborate on a series of safety recommendations that the charity has devised. Five have replied and are implementing Article 19’s recommendations to varying degrees. Two remain nonplussed. “It is difficult to crack the Silicon Valley mentality,” says Afsaneh Rigot of Article 19.

Activist Peter Tatchell is arrested in Moscow after protesting about the treatment of LGBT people in Russia

Many who work for these apps are appalled by what is happening in hostile regions. Yet just as many, higher up the chain of command, remain resistant to the changes that are necessary. It suits the architects of these apps to imagine (or pretend) that western social mores are universal.

Tom is a 30-year-old gay man who works for a US dating app with a predominantly heterosexual membership. He has been troubled by how many senior staff do not take LGBT safety seriously enough: “My bosses are not homophobic but they are massively naive and don’t understand the most basic challenges of dating as a non-straight person. Ironically, they have tried to treat everyone the same but this means that they seriously overlook the additional security needs of the community and have never, to my knowledge, done deep research about what the LGBT user might need, even in places with stringent anti-gay laws.”

Maxim Lapunov described his detention and torture in Chechnya after a crackdown on gay men

For veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, the solution is simple: “Dating apps should be posting regular warnings to users about the danger of blackmail, violence, sexual assault and public exposure – and how to better protect themselves.”

But to implement his blueprint, apps would first have to assess the level of risk in the various geographical locations: a task that tech companies with relatively small workforces are instinctively reluctant to undertake. For those apps that are mainly heterosexual in focus, LGBT security-risk analysis would be costly to implement. Instead, they tend to roll their services out into new regions around the world with little market research, simply following what the biggest players do, and with no-one to hold them to account.

Technically, the apps are not breaking any laws. Myles Jackman is an obscenity lawyer with deep knowledge of “sexploitation” cases. He points out that the global complexity of the security situation makes for an almost impossible legal response: “A European citizen on an app that is ‘sexploited’ may be protected by human rights law. But the minute they travel to a place like Dubai or Singapore, they’re at the mercy of local laws. If they get into trouble, they’ll need to rely on the skills of the consulate to get them home safely. Meanwhile, for local users who are subject to the laws of that country, there’s no protection and an app has no legal duty to protect them whatsoever.”

Noor Sultan is the executive director of Bedayaa, a grassroots organisation that provides everything from legal aid to health advice for LGBT people in Egypt and Sudan in the event of sexploitation. She and her colleagues have been trying to advise dating apps on how they can make life safer for users, but “many of them simply don’t care about the security of LGBT people… Our struggle is how to make the apps care about their users.”

Two men kiss during a rally in Beirut calling for secularism

Ironically, even in countries like Egypt or Iran where waving a rainbow flag can get you arrested, dating apps have been a sanctuary of sorts. “We’re not going to stop using them,” says Anas. “We need them. How else would we meet?”

“But there are so many things they could do,” adds Anas. “Grindr, for example, watermarks your photos when you send them to another user (which effectively supplies proof of app use). Surely they could get rid of that?”

But too many apps are unwilling to alter their basic functions. Instead, Noor’s team has stepped in with basic advice: “We tell users to make sure they have verified who they are talking to. The community here is small, so if someone you are talking to online isn’t known by your trusted friends, you should be cautious. If you’re going to send pictures, don’t send your nudes with your face. And when you go to a date, don’t take any money with you. Tell someone where you are going. Don’t meet at home. And don’t take the mobile you’ve used to chat on, take another empty phone – and not a smartphone.”

Part of the reason for this last piece of advice is that officials in countries such as Lebanon and Egypt have started checking the smartphones of those whom they suspect of being LGBT and looking for incriminating dating apps. To circumvent these checks, Grindr has come up with an alternative icon and pin code function. It is some improvement, but it only works if a user is not taken in for questioning by the authorities or threatened with violence to reveal the truth. This has happened in many cases, including – Noor tells me – that of Sal in Alexandria, who was beaten by a gang so that he would confess to having a  Grindr account.

Eight people were each sentenced to three years in jail in Cairo after attending an illegal gay wedding ceremony

Grindr initially charged for its cloaking service; this has since been amended in Egypt, as it leads the police to a physical trail through bank statements or Apple Pay records. There is also the option to freeze the app’s geo-location function, which in hostile regions creates a map that can lead attackers straight to LGBT users and where they congregate.

At present on Grindr, nobody outside of Egypt can view Egyptian profiles. What’s more, nobody in Alexandria can view a profile from Cairo. But many other apps have made no such changes, nor do any of the apps offer instant deletion of messages – even though it is messaging history that leaves users most open to sexploitation.

Michael Blakeley is CEO of the London-based dating app  CliKD and has a legal background in data protection. Although  CliKD is only live in the UK, Blakeley is planning a global roll-out and says that he has no problem installing a “panic button” in hostile regions. “It wouldn’t be that difficult from a tech perspective. There’s a difference between deleting something on a live platform and deleting it by shutting down the app. You’d have to have something that would force the other person’s screen to shut too, and if they’d been chatting to, say, 50 users, you’d have to be able to delete all of those chat histories at the same time. But it’s certainly doable.”

Two men suspected of homosexuality appear in an Islamic court in the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi

But for Elijah, a 31-year-old teacher who lives in Iraq, it is a little more complex. “Everyone here does a kind of dance on the apps, we are all so suspicious. A panic button could be excellent but it could also create uncertainty. You might think, ‘Oh gosh, that person disappeared and I have no way to contact him. What if they’ve decided to ruin my life?’”

There are no strict anti-LGBT laws in Iraq, but being outed tends to have terrible consequences, such as social and familial ostracism. Elijah and his friends say that, while state sexploitation is not a worry, entrapment by individuals does happen and many users believe that the intelligence forces are on Grindr surveilling them.

Jack Harrison-Quintana – who leads Grindr for Equality, the app’s unit dedicated to LGBT progress – says that the app sends daily messages for safety to users in what it rates “Level 4” (that is, highest-risk) countries.

A man wearing the flag of Tunisia at a protest in Tunis about gender equality and LGBT rights

Given the severity of recent homophobic cases in Egypt, does he never think about just turning off the app in those countries? “I used to think that, certainly in the context of Egypt and Nigeria… and if activists in Egypt told me we had to turn it off in Egypt, we would turn it off,” he says. “But every time I have talked to local activists, they tell me these apps are people’s lifeline to the community, and that’s too important to limit.”

But for Noor, it’s a matter of social responsibility. “Maybe some apps genuinely don’t understand the situation on the ground. But we are here to show them how they can do better. Arrests, blackmailing and violence are all happening through these applications. Each app has a social responsibility, and it’s not the same responsibility they have in the US and Europe. I say: you are part of the social life of these people. Their sexual health and mental health and well-being are your concern. It’s not just a business.”

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Further reading

A number of organisations are collecting stories and data on the exploitation of dating apps by criminals and authoritarian states. This Article 19 report covers various abuses in Egypt, Lebanon and Iran, while the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights takes a more detailed look at the first of those countries.

A more general account is provided by Brian Whitaker’s non-fiction book Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, as well as by Saleem Haddad’s novel Guapa.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is one of the definitive books on the broader implications of this age of apps and privacy violations.