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Tinder introduces safety feature to protect LGBTQ travelers

The new feature will work in nearly 70 countries where homosexuality is outlawed or criminalized.
Tinder research
The Tinder app on a smartphone.Jonathan Brady / PA Wire/AP, file

Tinder unveiled a new personal security feature Wednesday aimed at protecting LGBTQ users when they visit countries where same-sex relationships are outlawed or criminalized.

Upon opening the popular dating app in one of these nearly 70 countries, users will receive a “Traveler Alert” that notifies them that they appear to “be in a place where the LGBTQ community may be penalized,” according to a press release from Tinder.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer users will also no longer automatically appear on Tinder when they open the app in these locations. Instead, users can choose whether to remain hidden on Tinder or make their profile public while they are traveling. If they choose the latter option, the app will still hide their gender identity and sexual orientation from their profile, so this information can’t be weaponized by others.

“We fundamentally believe that everyone should be able to love,” Elie Seidman, CEO of Tinder, said in a statement. “We serve all communities — no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation — and we are proud to offer features that help keep them safe.”

Tinder worked with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), an advocacy organization that brings together more than 1,000 global LGBTQ organizations, to determine what countries should be included as part of the alert. The countries include South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Nigeria.

Also on the list is Egypt, where in 2018 there were widespread reports of the country’s authorities and residents using dating apps to entrap and persecute gay men. In addition to being imprisoned, some were subjected to forced anal exams, according to Human Rights Watch.

In the U.S. and abroad, there have also been numerous cases of people using gay dating apps to target members of the LGBTQ community and subsequently rob and/or attack them.

Experts say Tinder’s new feature is reflective of increased momentum to ensure the safety of the LGBTQ community through digital protections.

“Tinder’s new security feature is a welcome step in safety-by-design. It utilizes design strategies — defaults, aesthetics, opt-in buttons — to protect users rather than collect data,” Ari Ezra Waldman, director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School, told NBC News in an email. “By automatically hiding a user or their sexual orientation, the app defaults to safety in hostile territories. It deploys a big red warning screen to get users’ attention. And it forces users to opt-in to more publicity about who they are.”

Waldman said other apps should consider adopting similar measures. “The default should be no disclosure until the user affirmatively says it’s OK based on a clear and obvious and understanding warning,” he added.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that use of online dating apps among young adults had tripled over three years, and experts say this number is assuredly higher in the LGBTQ community, where stigma and discrimination can make it difficult to meet people in person. One study reported that more than a million gay and bisexual men logged into a dating app every day in 2013, while another from 2017 states that twice as many LGBTQ singles use dating apps as heterosexual users.

The relatively high number of queer people using dating apps, therefore, makes increased protections a more urgent matter, said Ian Holloway, an assistant professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“Tinder’s Traveler Alert is a great idea, but I wonder how it would translate to LGBTQ-specific platforms, where people know others’ sexuality by virtue of being on those apps,” Holloway said.

He pointed to Hornet as an example of an app that caters to gay men and has developed security guidelines, which includes obscuring users’ distance from others.

“I’m glad to see we’re thinking about these issues, but there are challenges that come with gay-specific apps,” Holloway added.

Last month, Tinder collaborated with GLAAD on a new feature that allows users to disclose their sexual orientation, which was not previously an option. The app also instituted a #RightToLove feature during Pride, which enabled users to send letters to their senators in support of the Equality Act.

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