The Chinese-owned app does pose data risks but wrongly framing such fears can fuel racism and homophobia
For years, American leaders claimed that the internet would bring free markets and liberal democracy to China. Today, they are more likely to express worry about how Chinese power and Chinese money are reshaping American tech. Conventional strategic areas, like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, have received the most scrutiny. But this week the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) reached an agreement after an investigation of a different kind of target: the popular gay social networking app Grindr.
Grindr is based in West Hollywood and boasts more than 27 million users. The Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech Company acquired it over two years, purchasing a 60% stake in January 2016 and the remaining 40% in January 2018.
On its surface, the purchase seemed ordinary enough. Many American tech companies from Twitter and Facebook to Tesla and Uber have foreign funders and founders, and Chinese investors have been a major presence in Silicon Valley for years. Nonetheless, under pressure from CFIUS, Grindrs Chinese owners are selling.
How did a hookup app become a matter of national security interest? The CFIUS investigation, which was first reported in late March, evidently focused on the array of sensitive data that Grindr collects about its users: location, sexual preferences, HIV status and explicit photographs that are exchanged while chatting. Even though Beijing Kunlun is a private company, the Chinese government can easily require it to turn over such data.
On principle, the US government may want to protect its citizens from prying eyes. But they are particularly concerned about a subset of users: the Wall Street Journal reported that, because a large number of military personnel or other US government employees may use Grindr, Trump administration officials believe there is a significant risk that the Chinese government could obtain Grindr user data to blackmail individuals holding top-secret security clearances or having decision-making power over issues pertaining to Chinas interests.
The case of Grindr might seem like a one-off oddity. On the contrary, it demonstrates how two of the biggest stories of our moment are colliding: the rise of the data economy, which sacrifices privacy to profits, and the escalation of US-China tensions, already called a new cold war.
As an app, Grindr creates the sensation of anonymity. It requires no linkages to other social media; public profiles often conceal users faces, showing only their torsos. But of course, Grindr, like other social apps, is not truly private. It collects and stores vast quantities of personal data, and has previously run into trouble for sharing users HIV statuses with third parties.
Transnational corporations that have amassed enormous amounts of wealth and power through such practices of commercial surveillance sit uneasily alongside the nation-states that still claim to govern them. Ambiguities regarding sovereignty intersect with those concerning strategy. In an age of big data and machine learning when photo editing and sharing apps can be used to train the kinds of vision recognition software deployed by military drones, for instance who can say definitively what technology is or is not strategic?
In this new era, private desires and everyday relations have become a site of geopolitical interest and potential conflict. An uneasy international intertwining of security, values and technology will increasingly be the norm. The grand US-China competition, usually spoken about in political or military terms, will enter into the most intimate lives of ordinary citizens.
Some American pundits have embraced the new cold war as an opportunity to restore national and ideological unity. But we should remember that, during the last cold war, the United States sometimes acted immorallyat home and abroad. Domestically, the idea of a cold war has often empowered conservative and even reactionary actors from the moralizing demagoguery of the 1950s to the Reagan-era conservative revival. This current invocation poses many of the same risks.
Rhetoric about a group of compromised US government personnel who are singled out as a source of vulnerability due to their sexual activities powerfully echoes the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. That was the legislative effort to purge the US government of what a Senate subcommittee called homosexuals and other moral perverts, devastating the careers and lives of thousands of American citizens. Perverts are vulnerable to interrogation by a skilled questioner, an influential Senate report declared. The pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer [E]spionage agents can use the same type of pressure to extort confidential information.
In 2019, these ideas still have traction: Think what a creative team of Chinese security forces could do with its access to Grindrs data, the Washington Post recently wrote, holding out the menace of leak[ing] compromising photos of gay American generals and China send[ing] male honeypots to targets in the American national security apparatus.
The risks posed by Kunluns ownership of Grindr are real. But when framed in a civilizational cold war paradigm, as a US state department official did recently, concern about the Chinese Communist partys power can fuel racism and discrimination. Chinese Americans describe how these tensions have invaded their everyday lives, from accusations of dual allegiances to demands that they speak in English rather than Chinese. Now American men who have sex with men have evidence of the US government seeing their behavior on a dating app as posing a national security risk. (The special scrutiny paid to their supposed liabilities is particularly ironic when several of the most powerful men in the world, including Trump and Jeff Bezos, have recently been blackmailed over heterosexual infidelities.) This potential demonization of already marginalized groups as part of US-China new cold war rhetoric would be profoundly destructive.
Americans must be able to address US-China tech competition without reprising past scares that damage our own society. Doing so will require Americans to interrogate our own biases. If Grindr users are perceived as uniquely at risk for blackmail, this reflects the persistence of homophobia in American culture. Critiques of Chinese influence blur the distinctions among the Chinese Communist party (CCP), ordinary Chinese citizens, and Chinese Americans, recalling a long history of racism and suspicion about Asian Americans allegiances. The CCP itself makes this task more difficult, because it attempts to deliberately blur those same distinctions and is a profoundly culturally conservative force.
Re-examining US-China connections in the tech sector may also require us to re-evaluate practices that American companies pioneered. In an era when consumers and governments alike allow ever-growing numbers of apps to hoover up intimate information and store it indefinitely, nearly everyone, not just Grindr users, is at risk in ways we are only just coming to understand.
At the present, neo-authoritarian movements and their leaders are escalating homophobia, sexism and transphobia worldwide from Xi Jinpings China to Viktor Orbns Hungary and Jair Bolsonaros Brazil. Donald Trumps administration has shown that these forces remain powerful even in the US. Resisting the emerging paradigm of a new cold war while also responding to the CCPs increasing influence is thus also about shaping what kind of society the US will be and living up to our own ideals of equality in love and before the law.
Julian Gewirtz is the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. Moira Weigel is a postdoctoral scholar at the Harvard Society of Fellows, the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating and a founding editor of Logic magazine