Kunlun Tech Co Ltd the new Chinese owners of gay hookup app Grindr in Beijing are now selling the app after a United States government panel reportedly deemed the company’s ownership a “National Security Concern”
Grindr, which claims more than 3 million daily users around the world, is based in California but was wholly acquired by Beijing Kunlun Tech Co in January 2018.
The company’s ownership of Grindr has led to fears among national security experts and privacy advocates that China could potentially use embarrassing or sensitive private data from the app for espionage purposes.
The decision to compel Kunlun to sell Grindr was issued by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a government body that evaluates the national security implications of foreign investment in America, Reuters reported.
Two unnamed employees spoke to NBC News about their concerns regarding data security when President Scott Chen began making changes to an internal communications policy while acting as the Chief Technology Officer after the sale of Grindr in January 2018.
“Scott was restricting access to all Grindr information, transferring everything over to WeChat and only conducting communications in Mandarin, making it very hard to keep up or keep tabs. This effectively made it difficult to properly and securely monitor Grindr users data” an employee said.
When the Foreign Investment Committee launched its investigation in August 2018, changes were rolled back, according to sources.
The anonymous employees said Chen had also proposed placing an intern to work for China’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in the US office so that they could put together research for a paper on HIV prevention.
“They are attracted by our brand, reach and data. We need to be extremely careful about their data request,” Chen wrote in an email published by NBC.
Yiming Shao is head of HIV prevention in China CDC. “We can’t let people say this is about sharing user data with the Chinese government.”
The sources who spoke to NBC did not offer any evidence that Chinese officials covertly accessed Grindr user data.
A spokesperson for Grindr told the outlet it wouldn’t comment on the federal committee’s investigation but the company “never disclosed any user data (regardless of citizenship) to the Chinese government nor do we intend to.”
“Grindr and the Grindr for Equality team periodically engage in discussions with highly respected national and international health organizations and researchers, including to help stop the spread of HIV.” the company said.
“Regardless of emails you may have read regarding a very preliminary internal discussion, Grindr has never engaged any intern associated in any way with the Chinese government.” This information can be misused in ways that threaten the safety of LGBTQI users’
The United States has been scrutinising all app developers over there handling of personal user data. “especially if some of it involves U.S. military or intelligence personnel,” according to Reuters.
Two US Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal told NBC they agreed with the CFIUS’s decision to push for the sale of Grindr.
“We’ve previously raised our concerns about Grindr’s privacy practices because their app serves a uniquely vulnerable group, it also collects highly sensitive information including, HIV status, sexual orientation and private messages”
“In the wrong hands, this information can be misused in ways that threaten the safety and well-being of LGBTQI Grindr users around the world. These concerns are heightened when there is a risk of adversarial foreign actors being privy to the data in question.”
Grindr has also had to respond to claims of user data privacy issues over the last 18 months, including an alleged encryption flaw that exposed a users exact GPS location even if they’d opted out of sharing it.
After a massive backlash from the LGBTQI community worldwide in 2018, Grindr promised to stop sharing users HIV and location data that it had allegedly not correctly deidentified with two of its external contracted partners.