Grappling with Grindr

-- By BradleyMullins - 12 Dec 2009

With the transition of social networking to the mobile phone comes new opportunity. Some see Location-based social networking as having the great potential to operate as a convenient dating service, aligning potential mates not only by shared interests, but also by physical proximity. Some of these services, such as Skout operate simply: showing basic profiles, primarily pictures, and measurements of distance between users. Other services, such as the UK’s StreetSpark, allow users to create more detailed profiles, facilitating the ranking of potential mates’ compatibilities. One such service in particular has garnered a significant amount of media attention: Grindr.

Grindr’s Appeal

Grindr is a GPS-enabled social-networking service available on the iPhone and geared towards gay men (a more inclusive version is envisioned for the future). For each user, Grindr displays how many feet away that potential hookup is standing, along with a picture, a tagline, relevant physical characteristics, and often a declaration of interest (some stated in more graphic terms than others).

The founder of Grinder describes his goals as relatively benign: to harness the power of the phone to allow users to escape their modern solitary lives, imposed by technology, and “reacquaint ourselves with our community.” Yet in reality Grindr is less a tool of social inclusiveness than a quick way to find a quick hookup. While such a service certainly holds an appeal to some segment of the population (and a quick survey of users in the Morningside Heights would indicate that its appeal is not limited by age or ethnicity), the enormous privacy concerns accompanying Grindr’s use have been lost in most discussions about it.

Privacy and Grindr

Grindr is essentially a tool for finding a sexual encounter among nearby strangers. Ignoring the fact that physically proximity is hardly a great indicator of sexual compatibility, Grindr also places sex, something that at least used to be considered a fairly private activity, in a very public sphere. It is therefore surprising that, in reviewing a number of articles about Grindr and similar services, only one raised privacy concerns.

Privacy concerns associated with Grindr come in numerous forms, concerns that are present even if geolocation information is secure, as other experiences demonstrate is unlikely. One privacy concern is personalized advertising based on a user’s location. Many services intend to profit by providing advertisers with information about users’ locations, thereby allowing local advertisers to send deals. Grindr’s privacy policy explicitly allows this, although it claims to only share aggregate information unlike to specific users’ Device Information Codes (“DIC”). Still, it may be quite disturbing to see a lunch special from a local restaurant appear based on the fact that you are searching for a quick hookup in the area.

A second privacy concern relates to the misuse of the information provided by Grindr to other users. This is primarily a fear of stalking, as Grindr’s provision of location makes it possible, if not easy, for an overly persistent admirer to track a user down. Grindr’s own privacy policy admits that sophisticated users of the service may be able to determine another user’s location, even if the display of location information is turned off.

The third, and perhaps most pressing, privacy concern is that use of services such as Grindr will make users more amenable to the sharing of what was once considered very private information. This, in turn, may lead to greater complacency when it comes to other forms of surveillance. Grindr functions only through users sharing information about their sexual lives in a very public manner. Just using the service basically indicates that a user is looking for sex in a particular location. Many users convey many more details – either through explicit details mentioned in profiles, or through conversations with users through Grindr’s messaging service. What is unclear, however, is what Grindr does with these conversations. Due to its geolocation abilities, Grindr not only knows who you are talking to and what you are talking about, but it can actually determine whether you move closer to that person (movement which may not be difficult to analyze).

Grindr attempts to soften privacy concerns by noting that it does not require users to register, thereby alleviating the need to assign names or email addresses to users. Yet Grindr is directly tied to a user’s iPhone, which likely has many other linked apps that may raise other security concerns and contain other personal information, such as Facebook. By not requiring users to register, Grindr may actually be creating a false sense of anonymity that lures users into complacency about privacy in the search for a quick and convenient hookup.

Reaffirming the Value of Privacy

While services such as Grindr may initially seem to provide a somewhat reasonable trade-off between privacy and convenience (and admittedly did seem so to me), a more careful examination shows that it is a dangerous tool for even its small target audience. It is particularly dangerous because it represents another step towards a complete societal acceptance of zero privacy in even the most intimate aspect of one’s personal life.

It is important that people think before using a service such as Grindr, and this thinking should be promoted through education. Part of this education should occur with the use of a service – explicit indications in terms of use that a service, by its very nature, abrogates privacy. But terms of use are rarely read, so education the increasing manner in which information technologies impeded upon privacy needs to be imparted on society more broadly. Rather than focusing only on cyberbullying and internet predators, and educators should encourage frank conversations about how public the internet really is. Users should learn to question new technologies rather than trust than, something I am just learning to do. At the very least, a Grindr user should be aware that there is a good chance that his picture and hookup attempts will be put up for discussion and ridicule on a very public website.

  • Bradley, you have to be kidding. Surely it occurs to you that a flat-foot conclusion that there is any goddam reason at all even to consider entering into an absurd devil's bargain like this is plainly only possible for a single person trying to get laid? Grown-up married people with families do not need the services this hypothetical bargain offers them, because they don't lead a life of casual pack socializing and hookups, and don't particularly want to broadcast the location of their children to anyone who might be cracking into social network geolocation services. Grown-up single people do not need this crap because they value their privacy and have long since gotten past the awkward years of not knowing how to get laid. So there's a particular period in life in which this high-risk activity would seem like an almost good idea to someone. You might want to narrow down the analysis to the range it really needs. * Prof. Moglen, thank you for your frank comments. In my first draft, I diluted my analysis by casting far too wide a net. In this revision, I attempted to focus only on a single geolocation service, one that is geared just towards the group you mentioned: those seeking a hookup. When I did so, I was forced to grapple with the realities of the privacy concerns involved, rather than glossing over them as part of some reasonable trade off. I hope that this revision somewhat clarifies things, but I would of course appreciate any further comments.