Since the introduction of smartphones in 1992, our reliance on our phones has grown, and they have now become an essential tool used within our daily lives. Smartphones, with their touchscreens and microprocessors, enable us to load apps that help us with specific tasks and activities, from managing our finances to communicating with friends all over the world. The apps available on smartphones have dramatically increased from a handful in 1992 to over 2 million applications currently available worldwide, all in a variety of languages and various operating systems (IOS, Android, etc.). The smartphone has changed people’s lives, with some treating their phones as a precious extension of themselves and the mere fought of being without their phone or access, even for a moment, feeling them with anxiety or Nomophobia (the fear of being without a mobile phone or without a signal on one's phone). It is undeniable that smartphones have change people’s lives, however, for the LGBTQ+ community it dramatically changed the way people communicated, how we meet similar people to ourselves and of course, the sexual lives of many within the community.
Back before the apps, such as Tinder, Her, Grindr, Growlr, Moovz and the hundreds of other speciality apps catering to the LGBTQ+ community, many individuals only had a few, often risky methods, for meeting other similar people. Visiting gay bars and clubs was one option, however for many, the idea of going to a bar or club, let alone a gay one was a daunting idea, the more common method was through cottaging or going to areas were LGBTQ+ people would hang around, often looking for sex. These meetings would often take place in public areas, such as parks, restaurant bathrooms and public toilets; however, the risk of being caught was high, so was the possibility of catching a sexually transmitted disease (STDs). Then came the internet, from the early dialup connections with services such as CompuServe and AOL, it changed the way we met one another, as you could now go to forums and join lists. Though things became more accessible with the rise and popularity of the web, with tailored websites such as Gaydar, it wasn’t until the apps that things became easier, accessible and more convenient.
So how do the apps work, you start by creating a profile, often with a username (typically a nickname), your email address (which can be an email account with Outlook, Gmail or other paid or free services) and confirmation that you are over 18 years of age, typically by adding your date of birth. Of course, you can add in additional information about yourself, including photographs; however, those three pieces of information are typically the minimum you are required to enter. Once you are registered, you will then be placed on a grid with other people that are around you. These applications tap into your phone’s GPS (your physical location) and identify people by their distance from your current location, and this can be anything from a few feet (meters) or hundreds of miles (kilometres). Once you see someone you like or are attracted to, you can swipe, ping the user or by saying ‘Hi’, if the other person is interested, they will be communicated back, it is that simple. Though the apps use is often sexual by nature, people do typically also use them to make friends and talk to similar people around the world.
The rise in popularity of such apps has also seen harmful and criminal activities carried out on these popular services, often abusing the apps primary purpose. One such activity is known as catfishing, where an individual pretends to be someone else or where they hide their true identity. They build an online relationship with other users, who believe them to be someone that they are not, only to either ghost (delete and disappear) or to confess that they have been lying to them all along. Though serious, there are even more criminal activities carried out, which can include blackmail, ransoming and assault. Given that it is not possible for many of the apps to verify users, individuals can create fake accounts giving throw-away email addresses, phoney date of births and by using other people’s pictures. Once they are online, they begin talking to other users, building relationships and once the trust has been built, either getting them to expose intimate details or photographs in order to blackmail them or worse luring them to an address to be physically or sexually assaulted. Though it is believed that these more serious crimes do not occur that often, the sad reality is that these types of crimes go unreported, so it is hard to gauge an accurate estimate of the size and scale.
The apps, in an attempt to safeguard their users, are reviewing the possible introduction of a verification process, which would occur either during or after registration. Users will likely be required to provide the same or similar information they do currently when creating an account however they would also be required to provide a credit card or upload some form of official identification (ID card, Passport etc.) to verify both their age and true identity. Many have welcomed these measures as a way of reducing misuse and abuse; however, there are also more significant concerns around how it might work and of course the realisation that there will still be ways around and methods for tricking these measures, for any individual’s intent on criminal activities.
Anyone that has ever been catfished blackmailed or even worse, been assaulted, would welcome and be happy by the move; however, there are many that question how these people are tricked in to providing intimate details and putting themselves in the situation in the first place. It is quite easy, as it plays on our simple desires and fears, the desire to be wanted and fear of not being alone. It starts with attraction, a picture from a person you find attractive, followed by a conversation that makes you feel special, the promise of a better future, painting a picture where you fill in the gaps to make it the perfect vision of your dream. Typically, they are creating a world that you are at the centre, with your own desires supporting the narrative. The prospect of the meeting becomes a fear, what if it is not as perfect as I imagined, or they are not what I imagined, followed by let’s meet once we know each other better. These types of relationships are built up over time and only once you let down your guard down and start revealing intimate details, that is when the true nature of the relationship is exposed. Pay or else, come and meet me at my hotel as I am in town, now that isn’t to say that all online relationships are not real, that there aren’t people that meet and it fails because there isn’t attraction in person or that they meet and go on to have a long and successful relationship.
The biggest concern around user verification relates to the handling, security and administration of people’ financial or identity information. These new measures would likely require users to hand over credit card information and personal identification which would probably be stored within these apps, but how will these companies keep that information safe. The companies or individuals that manage the apps can be located anywhere around the world, in countries where data protection may not be as strict or in jurisdictions in which any breaches or fines could not be enforced. Though they might be in countries in which they do not necessarily have to comply, they might still decide to improve their infrastructure, which would increase the costs for their service. We know that data security is an important concern especially in light of some highly publicised data breaches, where having your name and email address being compromised is one thing, however, having your ID card or passport taken is an entirely different ball game. Many apps have heightened their security measures and infrastructure to protect from such breaches, however, with more personal and sensitive data being stored on these services, it is likely a lot more would need to be carried out.
The reality is verification would likely come at a cost, inevitably reducing the number of users from low incomes or third world countries from using the service and the check itself would probably scare people that live in countries in which same-sex related activities are classified as illegal, where prosecution could result in a death sentence or put off people that are coming to terms with their sexuality scared by any potential exposure. The last concern is around legal jurisdiction of the data if the company or individual is located in a country where records can be seized, or extradition treaties are in place, a country can subpoena these services to provide the information relating to users on their service that come from that country, they can use different guises to get the data, but if the request comes from an antiquated regime, the consequences to the users of the service could be severe.
The pros and cons of user verification are balanced and equally as important; however, maybe there is a middle ground. Optional verification that unlocks features within the app. A feature that allows users to show that have been verified, a reporting feature against a user if they are not what they seem, especially if you meet in person. A verified user would give other users confidence that they are speaking to a real user, but it would also allow people coming to terms with their sexuality the freedom to explore and those that are fearful of persecution the ability to retain their anonymity, but at the same time given those that can, the ability to show that they are who they say they are.
Whether you are in favour or against verification, it is important to remember that not everyone around the world has the same rights and protection under the law, with a quarter of the LGBTQ+ community living in countries where their sexuality is deemed illegal, their concerns are real, and their safety is of paramount importance. The need for anonymity should also not allow some to abuse the trusting and vulnerable nature of many of the users. The reality is that no one solution fits all, but a compromise could achieve the desired outcome.