Opinion | Queer Dating Apps Are Unsafe by Design
Pete Buttigieg met his husband on a dating app called Hinge. And although that’s unique among presidential candidates, it’s not unique for Mr. Buttigieg’s generation — he’s 37 — or other members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that use of online dating apps among young adults had tripled in three years, and nearly six in 10 adults of all ages thought apps were a good way to meet someone. The rates are higher among queer people, many of whom turn to digital spaces when stigma, discrimination and long distances make face-to-face interaction difficult. One study reported that in 2013 more than one million gay and bisexual men logged in to a dating app every day and sent more than seven million messages and two million photos over all.
Privacy over our sexual selves protects our dignity and autonomy. It allows us to speak our minds and maintain social relationships. But for queer people, privacy is uniquely important. Because employers in 29 states can fire workers simply for being gay or transgender, privacy with respect to our sexual orientations and gender identities protects our livelihoods. Privacy can also make us safer, especially with anti-queer hate crimes increasing. Privacy lets us both “come out” in our own time and, once we do, live our best lives out and proud, and modest changes in design and in the law of platform liability can help us achieve and maintain the privacy we need to survive and thrive.
The frequency with which queer people using social media, generally, and mobile dating apps, in particular, amplifies the privacy concerns we face compared with the general population. All digital dating platforms require significant disclosure. Selfies and other personal information are the currencies on which someone decides whether to swipe right or left, or click a heart, or send a message. But the demand for disclosure is powerful among gay people. In one peer-reviewed study, 87.4 percent of gay male app users reported sharing “graphic, explicit or nude photos or videos” of themselves, higher than among those looking for opposite-sex relationships.
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Sometimes, the disclosure can cause real pain. Matthew Herrick, a gay man from New York, was stalked and harassed by his ex on the geosocial app Grindr. His intimate images were disseminated without his consent, and over 1,000 men were sent to his home and place of business looking for sex. In 2017, two North Carolina high school students created a fake profile and solicited a nude photo from their teacher, and then distributed the picture throughout the school. The teacher was at first suspended and then transferred. And 14.5 percent of gay and bisexual men who use geosocial dating apps report that someone has shared their intimate images without their consent. These stories are extreme, but not isolated: striking stories of extortion, race-based sexual harassment, catfishing and revenge porn are common on queer dating platforms.
Maintaining privacy in this environment seems difficult. Many people think we can’t. They blame victims for sharing intimate images, as if victims are responsible for the bad behavior of their abusers. I disagree. The problem isn’t online dating or the hard-earned freedom queer people have to live our lives out and proud. It’s the law, or lack thereof, that contributes to app designs that put our privacy at risk.
Over the past three years, I have studied the designs of different queer-oriented dating platforms and surveyed and interviewed hundreds of users. These individuals were diverse on multiple metrics: race, gender, age, geographic location and apps used. They used dating apps for different reasons, too, from long-term companionship or friendship to sex or idle chat. And they had varying degrees of success. Some had since deleted their accounts; many had not.
Other than their queerness, many shared similar thoughts and strategies about sharing personal information in an environment with strong disclosure norms. A plurality felt that sharing intimate images was impliedly necessary, with the pressure to disclose particularly strong among gay men. Stephen P., a gay app user from Boston, noted that “if you don’t share photos, you can’t really participate.” Jason R. admitted that “it’s the culture; [it’s] hard to avoid.” Others shared photos to verify their identity to others, while some shared photos in the name of sex positivity.
Despite this, significant majorities share with the expectation that their images will not be disseminated further. And many take steps to determine the trustworthiness of the people they meet online. Some anonymize their photos, sending intimate images without faces or other identifying characteristics. Many only share photos, graphic or otherwise, after “chatting with the other person” for some time — ranging from a few hours to a few weeks — sufficient to “develop a rapport” or, as Jared S. responded, “feel somewhat comfortable with the other person.” Often, users share intimate photos only after another user has shared with them, maintaining power in a social exchange for as long as possible and relying on reciprocity and mutual vulnerability to reduce the likelihood of bad behavior. And many rely on the comfort and familiarity of an app’s exclusive queerness. John H. noted that “someone who is also gay, also about the same age, also single, also lonely, also looking for the same thing you’re looking for, just seems less likely to hurt you than someone else who doesn’t share the same personal narrative.”
These strategies help develop trust among users, which facilitates disclosure. But trust cannot operate alone. The design of the platforms — the socially constructed processes and code that make them function — and the laws governing behavior of users on the platforms have to work together to buttress trust norms and ensure our safety.
Right now, the law isn’t helping. Tort law, the regime we use to seek damages from harassers, has been ineffectual because many courts look at gay people sharing selfies and conclude that they gave up their privacy the moment they clicked “send.” Despite the tireless work of advocates, we’ve only just introduced a federal revenge porn bill. And the federal law we do have, Communications Decency Act Section 230, immunizes digital platforms from most legal liability associated with the bad behavior of their users. That means that dating apps can ignore hundreds of complaints from their users about harassment, racism and invasions of privacy. They know no one is going to punish them for their negligence.
That makes us entirely dependent on the design choices of the platforms themselves. Hinge made a commitment to privacy by designing in automatic deletion of all communications the moment users delete their accounts. Scruff, another gay-oriented app, makes it easy to flag offending accounts within the app and claims to respond to all complaints within 24 hours. Grindr, on the other hand, ignored 100 complaints from Mr. Herrick about his harassment. If, as scholars have argued, Section 230 had a good-faith threshold, broad immunity would be granted only to those digital platforms that deserve it.
Privacy isn’t anathematic to online dating. Users want it, and they try hard to maintain it. The problem isn’t sharing intimate selfies, no matter what victim-blamers would have us believe. The problem is the law permits the development of apps that are unsafe by design.
Ari Ezra Waldman is a professor of law and the founding director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School.
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