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Some users even create profiles to warn others that a specific individual is a blackmailer or a cop. On Hornet, more than half the accounts have pictures, though many stay obscured. One Egyptian man told me that when he visited Berlin on vacation, he was shocked to see that every Grindr profile had a face; it had never occurred to him that so many people might out themselves online.
Screenshots are dangerous for the people who take them, too: a Grindr shot in your camera roll could easily become evidence in a debauchery case. Just having the app on your phone is a risk.
Even if you know all the rules, all it takes is one slip to fall into the trap. A local nonprofit worker named Youssef told me he tells friends not to use the apps if they have other options. At the same time, Grindr has struggled with a string of recent security issues, leaking profile data through third-party plugins and sharing HIV statuses with analytics partners.
None of those slip-ups seem to have been exploited by Egyptian groups, but they can hardly be reassuring to users. Hornet president Sean Howell told me it was a deliberate choice. We send warnings. But we have , users in Cairo. Are we going to send them back to a digital closet?
One of the biggest challenges in designing these features is the culture gap between users like Firas and the designers at Grindr and Hornet. Both apps were built amid a thriving, sex-positive gay culture. In most countries, they represent that culture pushed to its limit. Thousands of miles away from the most vulnerable users, how would you know if you made the wrong choice? Researchers who are partnering with platforms have been struggling with those questions for years, and apps like Grindr have given researchers a new way to answer them. Once we start messaging them, it creates more of a network.
Once he saw how powerful the geo-targeted messages could be, he started looking for more places to use them. The project would focus on three Middle Eastern countries with different degrees of repression: Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon. Egypt faced the most intense crackdown, but the threat had more to do with police intimidation than actual convictions.
Amid Egypt's anti-gay crackdown, gay dating apps send tips to stop entrapment - Reuters
Iran faces a more subtle version of the same threat, with police more interested in cultivating informants than raiding bathhouses and making headlines. Lebanon is seen as one of the best places to be gay in the region, even though homosexuality is still illegal there. The greatest threat is being accidentally outed at a military checkpoint and swept up in a broader counterterrorism effort.
The project culminated in an person roundtable the following summer, bringing together representatives from Grindr, Article 19, local groups like EIPR, and digital rights technology groups like Witness and the Guardian Project. After Article 19 and local groups presented the results of the survey , the group puzzled through a series of possible fixes, voting on them one by one.
The local groups were talking about what they think could help their community. The technologists were talking about the features that they could help create. And then people like Jack [Harrison-Quintana] from the business side were talking about what companies would be able to take on. The end result was a list of recommendations, some of which are already showing up in Grindr. Since October, Grindr users in countries have been able to change the way the app appears on the home screen, replacing the Grindr icon and name with an inconspicuous calculator app or other utility.
Other recommendations were harder to implement. The group suggested that apps would be safer with disappearing messages or images that were harder to screenshot, but making that change might cut too deep into the service itself. For every real user in danger, there would be 10 accidental account wipes. It would make users safer, but would it be worth the friction? In the background, there is an even harder question: why is it so hard for tech companies to take stock of this kind of risk?
Pulling out of countries like Egypt would certainly make business sense: none of the countries involved are lucrative ad markets, particularly when you factor in the cost of developing extra features. Leaving would mean giving that up. When Howell visited Egypt in December for Hornet, he came away with a similar conclusion. Hornet has made some small security changes since the trip, making it easier to add passwords or delete pictures, but the bulk of his work was telling users what was happening and pressuring world leaders to condemn it.
Amid Egypt's anti-gay crackdown, gay dating apps send tips to stop entrapment
He was more skeptical about the value of the new security measures. It hit Omar a few weeks after the first raids this fall. It felt like there was a new arrest every day, and no place left that was safe. When he turned around to check, there was no one there. The situation is not safe here in Egypt.
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You exchange small talk and sexy photos for a couple days before asking him on a date. He suggests a nearby, popular cafe, but when you arrive, police officers swoop in and arrest you. As it turns out, your beau was an undercover officer; you're told that you're being charged with "debauchery," and your conversations and photos will be used as evidence against you in trial. You could end up spending six months to six years in jail, where you may be subject to torture.
This isn't some Orwellian hypothetical; it's a serious reality for queer people in Egypt, and one that seems to be getting worse. Mashrou' Leila's lead singer is openly gay, and some fans waved pride rainbow flags in the crowd—a serious political act in a country like Egypt, with a long history of state-sponsored queer oppression.
Photos of the flag-waving incident quickly spread on social media, triggering a public outcry. And in the days following, seven alleged LGBTQ people were arrested and charged with promoting sexual deviancy. Since then, human rights groups have said that more than 60 have been arrested, with some sentenced to years in prison. Rupert Colville, a UN human rights spokesman, told the Washington Post that some have been entrapped by police using gay dating apps and chat rooms, part of a campaign of digital entrapment on the part of Egyptian authorities that's been ongoing since , when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government came into power.
In response, the gay dating apps Grindr and Hornet are taking steps to help ensure their users' safety in countries where they may be unsafe. They're necessary steps to reclaim some of the few online spaces where queer people can meet in repressive societies. A recent update to Grindr in Middle Eastern, Gulf and North African areas enables users to change the Grindr thumbnail on their phone into something less conspicuous, and set a passcode to open the app and protect the content inside. And the Egyptian crackdown has prompted Hornet and Grindr to send safety tips to users in Arabic, reminding them to take extra steps to confirm the identity of users they might meet from the app and tell others where they'll be beforehand.
Sean Howell, Hornet's president, said the company is developing other solutions to ensure user safety, but declined to provide details to protect their confidentiality. These recent updates are part of a broader effort across the gay dating app industry to help protect users. In , in response to reports that Egyptian police were using the service to triangulate user locations, Grindr disabled a feature that showed one's distance from others on the app.
And in , Scruff introduced a slate of features to protect users, including sending travel advisories to users who enter countries where homosexuality is criminalized, automatically disabling location services in those countries, and the ability to flag profiles that users believe are being used to entrap others.