Chinese owners of Grindr forced to sell by US over spying and blackmail fears

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The Chinese company that owns gay dating app Grindr has reached a deal to sell it by 2020 after security concerns were raised by US authorities over the potential sharing of personal information. 

Key points:

  • There are fears that user data could compromise US officials including spies
  • A previous data breach saw HIV statuses and personal information handed to other companies
  • Experts warn of the potential for China to target LGBT people through the app

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) sounded alarm bells earlier this year when it declared that Chinese ownership of the popular app used by 3.6 million people was a national security risk.

It warned personal information such as people’s HIV status, messages, and location were at risk of being handed to the Chinese Government.

Grindr has already been in trouble over misuse of data after it was revealed it shared people’s data, including HIV status, without users’ consent.

Beijing-based company Kunlun, which bought Grindr in 2016 for more than $100 million, announced earlier this week it had reached an agreement to sell the app before June 30 next year and promised not to access user data or transmit any sensitive information to Chinese entities.

Senior lecturer in Cyber Law Dr Guido Noto La Diega, from Northumbria University in the UK, told the ABC the Chinese ownership was an obvious potential threat to freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

He also said it was concerning given Chinese authorities’ treatment of LGBT people.

“When it comes to privacy, security laws allow Chinese agencies ubiquitous surveillance,” he said.

“[US fears] are realistic, as shown by the prosecutions of users for activity on messaging app WeChat or by the fact that Rela, a dating app for lesbian women, was shut down in 2017.

“As to safety, one need only think that in 2017, a [Beijing] conference organised by an LGBT group was cancelled after police detained organisers.”

The move follows telecommunications equipment makers Huawei and ZTE being barred from government contracts in the US.

Man using Grindr

Government officials and intelligence workers at risk of blackmail

Experts have also warned that an app like Grindr holds data that could expose high-ranking officials, such CIA or FBI agents, to a range of blackmail and honeytrap scenarios.

In a statement about the sale, advocacy group Privacy International said the move by CFIUS was an admission that Grindr users’ data was not safe.

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“As government officials, including US military and intelligence services officers, may be Grindr users, the US Government is right to be concerned about the possibility of a foreign government gaining access to the most intimate aspects of their lives,” the group said.

“Indeed, the Chinese Government, like an increasing amount of others, has passed what’s known as ‘data localisation’ laws, which force companies to store data in their territory, opening up legal and technical avenues for access to their data centres.”

US senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to Grindr last year seeking answers about how the app would ensure users’ privacy.

“Simply using an app should not give companies a license to carelessly handle, use, or share this type of sensitive information,” the senators wrote.

“Grindr and those with whom it shares its users’ sensitive information has an obligation to both protect this data and ensure users have meaningful control over it.”

Privacy International said it would be hypocritical just to talk about China’s activities, pointing out that US agencies could just as easily obtain user data.

“It is equally concerning that Grindr users from any country and background are at the mercy of a government, be it the Chinese or the US government,” the group said.

Comment has been sought from both Kunlun and the Chinese Government.

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