Gay dating app Grindr has been sharing whether its users are HIV-positive
In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, more and more social media users have been forced to question how Silicon Valley corporations exploit their personal data in the name of turning a profit. This curiosity is all the more merited since this data has been proven to have been used by special interest groups to advance certain political agendas. In case you've been living under a rock for the past month and have missed out on the drama, here's a condensed version to get you up to speed.
Back in early March, whistleblower Alexander Nix reported that data mining and analysis company Cambridge Analytica was responsible for acquiring Facebook users' personal information via certain apps which claimed to be harvesting data for academic reasons. The personal information of approximately 50 million Facebook users was eventually mined when 270,000 Facebook users originally shared their personal data with the app "thisisyourdigitallife". The issue was that, not only did users give the app permission to take their own data, but they also gave the app information about their friends as well.
As a result of these revelations, Facebook experienced a $37 billion drop in its market capitalisation, and a later poll showed that only 41 per cent of Facebook users trusted Zuckerberg and his company with their private information. Facebook has been forced to provide an urgent update to address its privacy issues and other apps which work in tandem with Facebook have also come under heavy scrutiny, including a popular dating app which apparently shared information about whether users were HIV-positive.
Gay dating app Grindr, which currently boasts more than 3.6 million daily active users, has admitted to sharing data with certain analytics companies Localytics and Appitmize, without the consent of said users. Grindr first started prompting users to get HIV tests in March 2018 as a way to promote safe sex and shared their information with Localytics and Appitmize to test and optimise the HIV reminder feature. In an official statement regarding the update, director of Grindr for equality Jack Harrison-Quintana said: "We felt this update would be a great way to make an immediate impact within the community on a broad scale and encourage more regular HIV testing."
However, Antoine Pultier, a researcher working for the Norwegian nonprofit research organisation SINTEF, claims that information about whether Grindr users have tested positive for HIV could be used by others to identify specific users and their HIV status. Grindr also reportedly shares private information about GPS, phone ID, email, relationship status, ethnicity and information about subcultures with relevant advertisers. However, in a recent interview, Pultier attributed the misuse of data to negligence, not malice. "The HIV status is linked to all the other information," he said. "I think this is the incompetence of some developers that just send everything, including HIV status."
Grindr has since faced heavy criticism from data protection experts, as well as LGBT+ activists. In response to the revelations, James Krellenstein, a spokesman for AIDS advocacy group 'Act Up,' stated: "Grindr is a relatively unique place for openness about HIV status. To then have that data shared with third parties that you weren’t explicitly notified about, and having that possibly threaten your health or safety — that is an extremely, extremely egregious breach of basic standards that we wouldn’t expect from a company that likes to brand itself as a supporter of the queer community."
Cooper Quintin, a senior security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stated that the way the data was passed over to third-party advertisers, (often via plain text) also left those users exposed to the possibility of hacking, or blackmail from those looking to take advantage. It could also make gay people who were outed through the app more vulnerable to homophobic attacks.
"It allows anybody who is running the network or who can monitor the network — such as a hacker or a criminal with a little bit of tech knowledge, or your ISP or your government — to see what your location is," Quintin stated. "When you combine this with an app like Grindr that is primarily aimed at people who may be at risk — especially depending on the country they live in or depending on how homophobic the local populace is — this is an especially bad practice that can put their user safety at risk."
Two United States senators have also written letters to Grindr, expressing concern about their mishandling of the confidential medical histories of its users. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut wrote: "Simply using an app should not give companies a license to carelessly handle, use, or share this type of sensitive information ... 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."
As a result of the backlash, Grindr has since released a statement in which it apologised for its conduct and claimed that it did not intend to ever profit from personal data. "Grindr has never sold, nor will we ever sell, personal user information - especially information regarding HIV status or last test date to third parties or advertisers," it stated. However, this is far from the first time that we've examined a controversy in the world of LGBT dating. Learn about how the 'Masc4Masc' trend is turning gay men against feminine guys.