The Chinese gaming company that owns gay hookup app Grindr, Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd, is trying to sell the app after a United States government panel reportedly deemed the company’s ownership to be a “national security risk”.
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 last year.
But the company’s ownership of Grindr has led to fears among national security experts and privacy advocates that China could use potentially 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 the United States, Reuters reported.
Two unnamed employees spoke to NBC News about their fears about data security when now-President Scott Chen began making changes to internal communications policy while acting as the Chief Technology Officer after the sale in January 2018.
“Scott was increasingly restricting access to any kind of information, transferring everything over to WeChat and conducting all communications in Chinese, so it was very hard to keep tabs and help effectively police [user data security],” one source said.
When the Foreign Investment Committee launched its investigation in August, the changes were rolled back, the sources said.
The employees also said Chen proposed placing an intern working for China’s Center 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.”
The spokesperson said that the company never pursued the HIV research project outside of initial discussions.
“Grindr and the Grindr for Equality team periodically engage in discussions with highly respected national and international health organizations and researchers, including to help stem the spread of the deadly HIV epidemic,” the company said.
“Regardless of emails you may have 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 LGBTIQ users’
The United States has been increasingly scrutinising app developers over the safety of personal data they handle, “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.
“We’ve previously raised concerns about Grindr’s privacy practices because this application serves uniquely vulnerable groups and collects highly sensitive information, including HIV status and sexual orientation,” they said.
“In the wrong hands, this information can be misused in ways that threaten the safety and well-being of LGBTQ 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 had to respond to claims of user data privacy issues over the last 18 months, including an alleged encryption flaw that exposed users’ location data even if they’d opted out of sharing it.
Last year, Grindr pledged to stop sharing users’ HIV and location data that it had allegedly not deidentified with two external companies it had contracted, after a backlash.
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