Grindr security glitch exposes gay users in Uganda, Russian Kremlin

I wrote this morning about the disturbing security glitch in the popular gay smartphone app “Grindr,” which permits anyone with an Internet connection — including people who are not registered with Grindr, and who are not even logged into the service — to determine the precise location of any Grindr user.

Moments ago I was able to find three Grindr users in one of the most homophobic countries in the world, Uganda, and 3 more inside the Russian parliament and the Kremlin itself.

Here are the Grindr users, blacked out by me so they’re exact location isn’t disclosed.

uganda

And a colleague of mine was also able to find two Grindr users inside the Russian state Duma (parliament), and one inside the Kremlin itself (the Kremlin is the lower red circle, the Duma the top). And as my colleague notes: “It might be worth mentioning that the Duma is completely closed to the public. The Kremlin has open hours are 10am-5pm, but that image was taken at 9:22pm Local Moscow Time, well after the Kremlin was closed to the public.” In other words, these gay people likely work there.

duma-kremlinAs I noted in my earlier story, while apps like Grindr routinely show the distance one user is from another user, they do not show the users’ precise locations. Here is an example of what Grindr actually shows.

grindr

In this case, it shows this person as being 2 miles away from me, which really doesn’t give me any actionable information were I wanting to harm this individual.

What Grindr’s security glitch provides, however, is the person’s exact location to anyone — not just to Grindr users, but to anyone with an Internet connection.  That might be a problem for the three Grindr users I just found in Uganda’s capital, let alone the three Grindr users in Russia’s homophobic Duma and Kremlin.

To give you a sense of the breadth of the problem, here’s an earlier example of a popular neighborhood in Paris (note: the map zooms in much closer than this, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious where these guys lived):

paris

The thing is, while Grindr claims that this is a necessary and expected part of its service, it is nothing of the kind. I use Grindr, and have for years. Grindr users are not aware that by going on Grindr they are divuling their exact location to anyone with an Internet connection. They think they’re simply telling people how far away they are, without indicating the direction. There’s a big difference in telling a total stranger that you’re two miles away, and telling them that you live in the second house from the corner on Maple Street in Peoria, Illinois. And the problem is especially grave when Grindr users have no idea that this information is in fact being divuled publicly.

When Grindr users choose to turn their location data on (you can turn it on or off in the settings), they are not making an informed decision about their privacy, as they simply do not realize that their precise location is so readily available. This is a serious privacy violation that Grindr can no longer afford to ignore.

The risks are serious enough for any typical Grindr user, let alone gay men (and teens) in places like Uganda, or the Kremlin.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Rambie

    Yes, of course Grindr needs to know have a accurate fix on a users location to create the distance calculation given to users. However, the GPS data should be encrypted and the interface to even access the database should be more secure.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I find myself wondering the same thing, Fixer. I mean, the system is basically built to be broken.

    Okay, so maybe Grindr fixes it so that you can’t request location data without being a member. Easy workaround: Sign up a throwaway account and regain full access. Sure, it’s an additional insult in the Grindr situation that you don’t even have to join the service, but really it’s nothing like an impediment.

    So maybe they make it harder to grab very specific location data and just advertise distance from you to all the location-enabled Grindr members. Okay, each ping gives you a circle. Spoof your GPS location a second time to move to another location, do another ping or two, and voila — the overlapping circles will tell you exactly where the subscribers are, by simple triangulation. And you didn’t even have to give your real location.

    But hell, let’s not even bother with any particular technical expertise. Let’s just take…oh, say, a gang of homophobic Russian thugs. One of them signs up for Grindr — and instantly his phone becomes a 100% reliable ‘Gaydar’, sniffing out easy self-identified potential kidnapping and assault victims.

    And all of it depends only on the blind spots and lack of technical acumen of people in general.

  • The_Fixer

    Which is one reason why I don’t have a smartphone, and why I deny geolocation on my home browser. Seriously, the local Better Business Bureau site asked me if I wanted to share my location. They don’t need it for the site to function, they are selling that data.

    I am very careful on the Internet with any kind of personally identifiable info to the point of damn near being paranoid about it. Not because I am a luddite, it’s because I know how the Internet works.

  • nicho

    It’s the whole problem of people exposing themselves (sometimes literally) on the Internet. Never, ever put anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t mail to your mother, the police, and/or the local newspaper.

  • The_Fixer

    I am only slightly amused by this. My question is: Why didn’t people expect any differently?

    It is a smartphone application that advertises your presence and location. In order to present even a vague idea of where you are in relation to someone else, it has to know exactly where you are. It then takes that data and processes it. The servers refresh this data periodically, so they have a series of location data points, and they’re stored.

    Stop and think about that for a minute. During processing, the Grindr servers have to store your exact location data. What other program can be used to store that data? A database. Whenever you hear of a company’s servers being broken into, they generally do so through the database program running on the server. The hackers want the data, of course, that’s their ultimate target. This particular hack was an easy one. Due to a lax security attitude, Grindr pretty much invited it. Saying “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” doesn’t make it any less dangerous, and it requires changing.

    Thing is, any smartphone app can be capable of being exploited at the server level. And you can bet that even the most seemingly innocuous smartphone app collects data. Even “Angry Birds.” How do you think a lot of “free” things on the Internet are paid for? Selling of data – your data. It’s not limited to geolocation data, either. They – the providers of these free apps – store and sell every kind of data.

    Involving one’s self in any of these services that track you is a pretty iffy thing at best. Computer security is in its juvenile stages of development. If the storage of this kind of data will ever be truly safe, it’s not going to happen in the near future.

    As a result, it’s a “Buyer Beware” situation. Are the services provided by these free apps worth the cost of your data, and the possibility of that data being stolen? That’s something that everyone who uses these apps should carefully consider.

  • nicho

    And who knows what they’re doing with the information they collect? If you don’t pay for the product, you ARE the product.

  • nicho

    If I lived in a repressive society, I’d probably decide not to join a gay sex hookup site to begin with.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Ah, now that’s another question entirely, whether this was in fact “working as intended.” Grindr’s public statement claimed that this was what they intended because of course their system needs to know where you are! Making it sound as if “of course” Grindr is a service that broadcasts your exact location to everyone, which is an outright lie, and is the kind of corporate-speak I’ve come to expect from companies that wish to hide what they’re really doing. The first impulse is so often to lie and obfuscate.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    I’m not really sure I’d call it a glitch, so much as a ‘working as intended’. You would be stunned at how many mobile apps collect location data, even when they have absolutely no need to do so. It is up to the developers of those apps to protect the information they’re gathering… and well, so far, not very many developers seem to really care one way or the other. My question is, why is location data so often turned on by default in most devices? Not just phones, but tablets, laptops, even digital cameras. It’s not necessary to the adequate functioning of any of those devices. So, obviously companies must be using this data for some purpose. Safety of their users isn’t even a consideration.

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