The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China has access to Grindr activity. We should all be worried.

This picture taken on March 27 shows the Grindr app on a phone in Los Angeles. (Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)
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Recently, the news broke that U.S. national security officials ordered a Chinese company to sell the gay dating and hookup app Grindr. Thank goodness.

Around when the Chinese technology company Beijing Kunlun completed its $245 million acquisition of Grindr in January 2018, the Los Angeles-based app wrote that “the Chinese government will not have access to your account. Beijing Kunlun is not owned by the Chinese government.” Indeed, Kunlun is a private company. Its founder, Zhou Yahui, is known mostly in China for amassing enough wealth to have spent $1.1 billion on a divorce. He’s not seen as especially beholden to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

But Grindr was lying. Because a Chinese company now oversees Grindr’s data, photographs and messages, that means the Party can, if it chooses to do so, access all of that information, regardless of where it’s stored. And that data includes compromising photos and messages from some of America’s most powerful men — some openly gay, and some closeted.

Couple this with China’s progress in developing big data and facial recognition software, industries more advanced there than in the United States, and there are some concerning national security implications of a Chinese-owned Grindr. In other words, Beijing could now exploit compromising photos of millions of Americans. Think what a creative team of Chinese security forces could do with its access to Grindr’s data. It could leak compromising photos of gay American generals. It could send male honeypots to targets in the American national security apparatus. Whether Apple’s openly gay chief executive Tim Cook uses Grindr should be no one’s business but his own — but if he does, that could give Beijing ammunition to pressure or blackmail the head of one of the world’s most important companies. Not by threatening to out him, but by threatening to leak salacious photos or details — like Amazon founder (and Post owner) Jeff Bezos’s recent adventure in the tabloids.

In 2015, a Grindr user outed Randy Boehning, a Republican member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, after he voted against a gay rights bill. In 2011, then-New York congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a lewd photograph, setting off a chain of events which led to his 2017 arrest and, in a small way, contributed to the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2019, Beijing could extort a closeted congressman who does not want to be Weiner 2.0.

And while Beijing, unlike Moscow, isn’t known for blackmailing its dissidents with sexual kompromat, it’s not hard to imagine the human rights implications for gay activists in China, or for Chinese government officials looking to express themselves outside of the Party’s staid political culture. There are no known openly gay mainland Chinese politicians — though in one of history’s greatest owns, the Chinese LGBT community co-opted the word “comrade,” which state media still occasionally uses to refer to top leaders, to mean “gay” — and closeted Chinese gay politicians with accounts on Grindr or its Chinese competitor Blued could find themselves blackmailed by their political rivals.

Since Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. government — especially the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, which is led by the Treasury Department — has been subjecting Chinese investment in the United States to greater scrutiny. Grindr, which CFIUS has reportedly targeted, shares some worrying similarities with Huawei, the telecommunications giant banned by the U.S. government. Huawei and Grindr are both private Chinese companies overseen by people who don’t have clear ties to the Party — and officially they’re supposed to be independent.

There is no evidence that Huawei has spied for China in the United States, or that Grindr has given Beijing access to Americans’ private information. But Huawei and Grindr’s denials are not believable: They contravene how China actually works. The financial fortunes of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, Zhou and their colleagues — and their ability to stay out of jail — links directly to how the Party views them. The risk that Beijing is exploiting or will exploit Huawei and Grindr remains intolerably high.

How should the United States government balance productivity, free trade and national security? Three months after the 9/11 attacks, Richard Reid attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes. Since then, the Transportation Security Administration required most passengers at American airports to remove their shoes for screening — a horrifically inefficient process where the lost productivity far outweighs the minuscule reduction in risk. Similarly, restricting Chinese-made subway cars cuts off an important lifeline to America’s creaking transportation infrastructure — without a meaningful decrease in risk.

In 2014, hackers breached the Office of Personnel Management, stealing records from more than 21 million current and former federal government employees and contractors. While Beijing denied involvement, the U.S. government believes China was behind the hack. Imagine combining the OPM data set with Grindr, to create a database of the Social Security numbers, fingerprints and compromising photographs of thousands of gay U.S. government employees.

Is there any proof Beijing is considering this? No. But in the world of 2019, Grindr is a potent weapon. It shouldn’t stay in the wrong hands.