Imagine meeting someone on a gay dating app like Grindr or Scruff. He suggests a nearby, popular cafe, but when you arrive, police officers swoop in and arrest you. As it turns out, your beau was an undercover officer; you’re told that you’re being charged with “debauchery,” and your conversations and photos will be used as evidence against you in trial. You could end up spending six months to six years in jail, where you may be subject to torture.
And in the days following, seven alleged LGBTQ people were arrested and charged with promoting sexual deviancy
This isn’t some Orwellian hypothetical; it’s a serious reality for queer people in Egypt, and one that seems to be getting worse.
On September 22, a Lebanese rock band, Mashrou’ Leila, played a concert in Cairo. Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer is openly gay, and some fans waved pride rainbow flags in married singles dating sites the crowd-a serious political act in a country like Egypt, with a long history of state-sponsored queer oppression. Photos of the flag-waving incident quickly spread on social media, triggering a public outcry. Since then, human rights groups have said that more than 60 have been arrested, with some sentenced to years in prison.
Rupert Colville, a UN human rights spokesman, told the Washington Post that some have been entrapped by police using gay dating apps and chat rooms, part of a campaign of digital entrapment on the part of Egyptian authorities that’s been ongoing since 2013, when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government came into power. In response, the gay dating apps Grindr and Hornet are taking steps to help ensure their users’ safety in countries where they may be unsafe. They’re necessary steps to reclaim some of the few online spaces where queer people can meet in repressive societies.
A recent update to Grindr in Middle Eastern, Gulf and North African areas enables users to change the Grindr thumbnail on their phone into something less conspicuous, and set a passcode to open the app and protect the content inside. And the Egyptian crackdown has prompted Hornet and Grindr to send safety tips to users in Arabic, reminding them to take extra steps to confirm the identity of users they might meet from the app and tell others where they’ll be beforehand. Sean Howell, Hornet’s president, said the company is developing other solutions to ensure user safety, but declined to provide details to protect their confidentiality.
These recent updates are part of a broader effort across the gay dating app industry to help protect users. In 2014, in response to reports that Egyptian police were using the service to triangulate user locations, Grindr disabled a feature that showed one’s distance from others on the app. And in 2015, Scruff introduced a slate of features to protect users, including sending travel advisories to users who enter countries where homosexuality is criminalized, automatically disabling location services in those countries, and the ability to flag profiles that users believe are being used to entrap others.
You exchange small talk and sexy photos for a couple days before asking him on a date
“We have a general set of safety recommendations that are available in ten languages,” said Jack Harrison-Quintana, the director of Grindr For Equality, an arm of the company dedicated to LGBTQ activism. “Those are sent out every week to users in parts of the world where LGBTQ people may be in danger generally. However, during a time of particular crisis, we also send out warnings about whatever is going on at the moment on a more regular schedule. In this case, a message is going out every day and has been for several weeks since the concert. We’re doing the same in a few other countries at the moment like Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.”