A Chinese dating app for lesbian and queer women exposed the profiles and private data of over 5.3 million users, TechCrunch reported on Wednesday, possibly since June 2018.
The app, Rela, reportedly vanished from app stores in 2017, with Reuters noting similar apps had been taken down by the Cyberspace Administration of China in the past. However, it returned a year later. According to TechCrunch, security researcher Victor Gevers recently found that extensive personal information on millions of users was exposed on a server that lacked a password, including “nicknames, dates of birth, height and weight, ethnicity, and sexual preferences and interests.” That server also left over 20 million status updates exposed, Gevers told TechCrunch.
China decriminalized “hooliganism,” which the Atlantic reported was “widely assumed to include homosexuality, though the law was never explicit on this point” in 1997. In 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association deemed that same-sex attraction is not a mental illness. Reuters reported earlier this year that the Chinese government had agreed to United Nations Human Rights Council recommendations on LGBTQ+ rights, and it noted that the nation has a “vibrant LGBT+ scene.”
However, Reuters also wrote no domestic laws prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and the government often launches crackdowns on the gay rights movement and online content.
“The privacy of five-plus million LGBTQ+ people face a lot of social challenges in China because their are no laws protecting them from discrimination,” said Gevers. “This data leak that has been open for years make it even more damaging for the people involved who were exposed.”
In a brief response, a company spokesperson confirmed the database had been secured.
Authorities shut down one dating app catering to gay and bisexual men, Zank, in 2017 for allegedly violating anti-pornography laws via its live-streaming feature.
Numerous other Chinese apps catering to the LGBTQ+ community, remain online, however, and attitudes to gay rights are warming. According to Foreign Policy, in 2018 social media giant Sina Weibo was forced to go back on a purge of gay content after a massive backlash from users. The state-run Beijing News curiously provided “substantial funding” to gay dating app Blued in 2017, per the BBC, although Foreign Policy noted that government tolerance has limits: Authorities remain quite suspicious of organized gay rights movements, which they view as potentially disloyal to the Communist Party of China.
Chinese company Kunlun owns 60 percent of U.S. dating app Grindr, but is reporting looking to sell its stake under pressure from U.S. regulators worried its foreign ownership is a security risk.