Should Grindr users worry about what China will do with their data?

Guido Noto La Diega Senior Lecturer in Cyber Law and Intellectual Property, Northumbria University, Newcastle

In April 2018, the Norwegian Consumer Council filed a complaint against Grindr, the most popular gay dating app in the world, in light of its decision to share its users’ personal data – including HIV status and sexual preferences – with third parties. But the complaint and the outraged reaction overlooked another turn of events: in January 2018, Grindr was acquired by the Chinese corporate group Beijing Kunlun Tech for US$205m.

At the time, this prompted speculation as to whether Chinese authorities could access the data of the app’s 27m users in Europe and overseas. Grindr responded that the privacy of its users remained paramount, and that the government of China could not access data because “Beijing Kunlun is not owned by the Chinese government”. But there are obviously questions about whether that confidence is justified. To make this judgement, it has to be established whether or not Grindr users’ personal data are in fact being transferred to China.

Grindr’s privacy policy says that this data may be shared with a parent company – and that if Grindr is acquired, said owner “will possess the personal data”. Coupled with the Chinese trend towards data localisation requirements, which dictate that data should be processed within China itself, this provision means it may be possible for Grindr users’ personal data to be transferred to China.

As far as European user data is concerned, the decision to authorise such transfers principally falls to the European Commission, whose assessment is based largely on “the legal protections for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the third country, and access to transferred data by public authorities”. This means that any decision over what happens to the data of these users should take into account the situation of the LGBTQ+ population in China – a situation that remains far from comfortable.

Between May and July 2017, a Chinese dating app for lesbian women was shut down, homosexual content online that was deemed “abnormal” was banned, and a conference organised by an LGBTQ+ group was cancelled after police detained organisers. These sporadic but dramatic crackdowns on non-heterosexual people intersect with the government’s remarkable powers of surveillance and censorship. Read more via the Conversation