Gay 'Dating' Apps and COVID-19

It goes without saying that strict social distancing is imposing a lot of stress on people from every demographic group in the U.S. This is the most acutely felt by service workers unable to make income during this time (think all forms of cosmetology, including barbers, waiters and bartenders, non-essential construction workers, and so on) it is also disruptive and anxiety-inducing to people who must continue to work in jobs at places like Walmart or Amazon, where they have little autonomy and enormous pressure to show up like everything is normal.

Yes, healthcare workers of all stripes deserve our thanks and appreciation. But so too do retail and food workers, who receive far less prestige and income despite being utterly essential to our lives.

But for a huge number of Americans, we are stuck at home, wondering what to do with ourselves (I am playing a lot of Animal Crossing and baking bread, because I am a stereotype). And while partnered folks have to navigate some tricky challenges (like domestic abuse, a depressingly common feature of catastrophic events, or even just managing personalities in a confined space), single folk are struggling too with loneliness and connection.

That’s why it is so interesting to see how some of the “dating”1 apps out there are reacting to the pandemic. While they are normally a privacy nightmare in the best of times, any service that collects data on user locations is facing pressure to participate in a massive act of digital surveillance without precedent in our lives. (There remains a discussion about how the 2013 freakout over the NSA obscured and excused the far worse invasions of privacy Silicon Valley has engaged in, but that is another discussion.)

Tinder, for example, has become something of a “news service” about COVID-19. Some users set their locations to Wuhan, China, and were able to talk with people there, outside of Chinese government censorship, about the ground reality of life under lockdown during the pandemic. This is, obviously, not what the app was intended to do, but people using apps in ways they weren’t intended to be used is kind of a thing at this point.

Anyway, Tinder is still Tinder so horned up straight people are still trying to use it for sexting — perhaps, especially in places under strict quarantine rules. It’s their only escape.

Queer folk have a more complicated relationship with their apps and their sex lives during a pandemic. Older folk, who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic, have felt a disconcertingly familiar dread pop up, and managing it feels a bit like exercising old muscles that were dormant for years on end. Do you try to have sex and feel a connection with someone, and manage that risk as best you can, or do you hide at home? This was once a familiar and common — and upsetting — conversation queer folk would have to have with each other and themselves.

So it should not be surprising that LGBTQ people are approaching COVID-19 in a variety of ways, some resorting to sexting and cam sex like the straights on Tinder, while others try to manage their risk and still hook up in person.

There is a role here for the apps to be more proactive in how they approach user safety.

The first consideration is privacy, which has implications far beyond the basic measurement of who actually knows who you are having sex with. Grindr, in particular, has faced appropriate scrutiny and criticism over its user-hostile approach to personal data, mostly with regard to digital advertising companies (it isn’t far off from Facebook in that regard, though doing this with intimate sexual data makes the danger feel more acute).

Moreover, its former Chinese ownership poses serious challenges for any queer person using the app to organize sex or exchange sexual pictures with other users — which is particularly bad news during a public health emergency many governments are using as an excuse to vastly expand their surveillance of citizens. There are documented cases of the app’ while under Chinese ownership, allowed the government to access data about users’ HIV status. While Grindr was sold last month back to U.S.-based ownership, these privacy challenges remain.

HIV is a serious public health issue in every country, which is how China justified the intrusion. But so is COVID-19, and that is how the U.S. government, now, is justifying its own efforts to violate privacy. This is opportunism using a pandemic as cover to remove barriers for panopticon-like pervasive surveillance — something anyone who cares about public health and sexual health should find worrying.

It is also an area where Scruff, surprisingly, seems to be a bit of an exception. While tracking populations using phone location data is gaining tracking even in privacy-oriented EU countries, and the U.S. is investigating how it can do the same thing, Scruff has rejected calls to sell off user data, even for pandemic tracking. They also seem to be an exception — Grindr, Tinder, and OK Cupid have all been caught recently in the surreptitious selling of user data without explicit user consent.

So it might be worth asking what obligation these apps have to their users. The typical hierarchy of rights that app companies seem to have is, in order: themselves, their investors, their (data mining) clients, and finally their users. There is always a balance between these stakeholder groups, but it seems obvious that at most companies the wellbeing of the users is put at the bottom of their list of considerations.

That doesn’t mean the apps don’t care about user health and wellbeing. Indeed, the biggest queer “dating” apps (Grindr and Scruff for the male-identified, Lex for the rest of the acronym family) have been pushing out warnings on the need to socially distance and minimize contact, especially with new partners. This is good, but doesn’t go far enough.

After all, these apps do play a role in how well communities can maintain social distancing — and if they continue to enable violations of social distancing, then at the very least they become culpable to a shockingly high death count from COVID-19. And while governments may request or even attempt to require a violation of user privacy in the name of pandemic response, it doesn’t have to be this way. Much like with the social media companies refusing to consider user-responsible behavior until the threat of punishing regulation forced them do, these “dating” apps have the opportunity to behave more responsibly.

For example, a service like Grindr does not need to violate user privacy (at least, anymore than using the app itself violated privacy) to, say, push a warning out when it registers an account moving from one local cluster of accounts to another — a very clear data pattern that suggests movement that could be violating social distancing guidelines. It is something that can be done automatically, with the only data logged as toppling user numbers receiving this warning at the zip code level. While such a warning system would more intrusive in terms of user experience, it is also more private than allowing the CDC access to a more complete set of location data.

Gay apps should be working on similar solutions for how they can be proactive, pro-public health actors on the part of their users.

Much like the ongoing effort to increase safer sex practices, PrEP usage, and make treatment-as-prevention more widely available, there is a clear public health case for gay “dating” apps to be more proactive in how they are advising their user bases to be mindful of pandemic response measures like social distancing. If they do it themselves, they might forestall truly worrying government data seizures that would leave their users vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination down the road.

  1. Of course, we all know these apps aren’t really for dating – right? ↩︎

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