The Interface

By Casey Newton

How Grindr became a national security issue



March 27 · Issue #305 · View online
The Interface
Grindr is an app used primarily by gay men to find hookups in their immediate vicinity. With more than 27 million users, it’s so popular among its target audience that it has basically defined gay life for the past decade. In 2016, the American-made app was sold to a Chinese company called Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd. And in extraordinary move today first reported by Reuters, the US government is now forcing Kunlun to sell the app on national security grounds.
Carl O'Donnell, Liana B. Baker, Echo Wang report:
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has informed Kunlun that its ownership of West Hollywood, California-based Grindr constitutes a national security risk, the two sources said.
CFIUS’ specific concerns and whether any attempt was made to mitigate them could not be learned. The United States has been increasingly scrutinizing app developers over the safety of personal data they handle, especially if some of it involves U.S. military or intelligence personnel.
Last year Kunlun announced plans to do an initial public offering for Grindr. But CFIUS intervened, Reuters reported, and now Kunlun is attempting to sell it off.
How did the world’s horniest social network become a national security issue? CFIUS wouldn’t comment — as one source tells Reuters, “doing so could potentially reveal classified conclusions by U.S. agencies.” But as a former Grindr user, I have some … informed speculation to share!
One, Grindr owns some of the most sensitive data about its users that a social network ever could. The filthiest chats they’ve ever sent; nude photos and videos; and also their real-time location, measured to within yards. That’s all connected to a user’s email address, from which a user’s true identity might be easily learned.
The Chinese government has likely taken a significant interest in that data, which could be useful in targeting dissidents at home and for blackmail abroad. As a Chinese company, there is likely nothing Kunlun could do to prevent the government from accessing user data.
Two, as the Reuters story hints at, Grindr attracts users of all sorts — including members of the US military and likely its intelligence agencies. I can’t be the only Grindr user to have seen other users on the grid in military uniforms. It feels like only the slightest stretch to imagine China scouring the Grindr grid to understand American troop movements.
And if that sounds crazy, a dumb social app has given away troop movements before. Here’s Alex Hern, writing in the Guardian in 2018:
Sensitive information about the location and staffing of military bases and spy outposts around the world has been revealed by a fitness tracking company.
The details were released by Strava in a data visualisation map that shows all the activity tracked by users of its app, which allows people to record their exercise and share it with others.
Strava, of course, is an app that lets people track their runs and bicycle rides. When the company posted a map of popular routes for running and cycling, it inadvertently gave away national secrets. It eventually began allowing people to opt out of sharing their location.
With Grindr, of course, sharing your location is the whole point. The app orders your potential matches using only criterion — how physically close they are to you. It’s easy to imagine Chinese intelligence scouring the app for potential military users for any number of reasons.
It would be nice if the government took such a strong interest in data privacy in cases involving something other than national security. I stopped using Grindr in 2017 in part because I couldn’t imagine anything good coming out of having my location known to the Chinese government. But even if it took a military issue to grab regulators’ attention, I’m glad that in this case, they did the right thing.

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And finally ...
Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering?
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