Gay mobile apps a dual-edged sword for travelers outside the U.S.Around the World, Online Only, Top Highlights Tuesday, September 30th, 2014
For gay men traveling abroad, mobile apps like SCRUFF, Grindr and Manjam are the new, arguably sexual, calling card for like-minded people looking for hook-ups, social interactions and new acquaintances in foreign lands. But for others, especially in countries that are hostile to the gay experience, these sites are a mixed blessing, reports David Crary for APS.
“In one chilling case earlier this year in Pakistan, police arrested a paramedic on suspicion of killing three men he had met via the gay social network Manjam, which is based in London but has many users in Asia and the Middle East. The suspect told police he considered homosexuality to be evil. More recently, bloggers and activists raised concerns about how the popular dating app Grindr could be used to pinpoint a user’s exact location — even a user living where gay sex is outlawed. After complaints mounted, Grindr announced steps this month to reduce the risks for users in countries with a record of anti-gay violence — including Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Liberia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.”
But for travelers in any country whose culture is different than their own, caution is always the buzzword when engaging in what some see as high-risk behavior. Grindr’s CEO, Joel Simkhai, says his Los Angeles-based company strives to maximize security and privacy for all its users, yet he cautions that governments hostile to gays can muster powerful surveillance resources. “They have a lot of control and smarts on their side,” he said. “We try to use the latest technologies on our end, but so do they, so this tension will continue. “If your security is a big issue for you,” he added, “a location-based service might not be the best option.”
But international LGBT organizations have stood up and taken notice of the increasing use of these applications to entrap, blackmail and, in some cases, beat up unsuspecting victims. “The potential perils of social networking have attracted the attention of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a New York-based watchdog group. Hossein Alizadeh, the commission’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said he has tracked two main categories of cases in the region — some in which blackmailers connect with gay men and then threaten to expose them, others in which cyber police and morality police use dating apps and chat room sites to entrap and arrest gay men.”
And mobile app sites are responding. “Users’ precise locations are not shown during regular use of the app, but controversy arose earlier this year when a Grindr user in Europe was able to determine near-exact whereabouts of thousands of other users, including some in countries with anti-gay laws. This was done via a technique known as trilateration — recording other users’ distance from three different locations. Confronted with criticism, Grindr announced steps this month to reduce the risks for users in countries with a record of anti-gay violence. “Any user who connects to Grindr in these countries will have their distance hidden automatically by default,” the company said.
And while users of the apps know the inherent risks, that has not stopped them. A user from Ghana said some of his friends had been beaten and robbed by men they had met on Grindr who had claimed to be gay. Yet he also credited the app for helping him meet some “good guys.”
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