Online privacy and safety for the LGBTQ+ community

Tips & tricks
4 mins
Pride flag with a padlock.

The reality of this world is that those who are LGBTQ+ often have more at stake in protecting their privacy and safety than those who aren’t.

This is the unfun part of pride, for the community and its allies. It’s the reason we march. We fight against surveillance, limitations on our gatherings, and curbs on our self-expression. And we want those things in our lives online as well as in real life.

Here are some ways that you can make sure you are able to freely express yourself while protecting your privacy—and sharing your life on your terms online.

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Not out? How to control your privacy

Coming out is obviously a very personal choice. If you’re not out, it is probably important to you that your privacy is maintained so you’re not “outed” through online conversations or posts that you thought were private. 

The first tip to staying anonymous and private when discussing topics that are sensitive to you is to use custom privacy settings when on mainstream social media, or avoid such services altogether. 

The fact is, using these sites reveals a lot of information about you, whether you’re actively giving it away or not. In 2017, a study found that even if you don’t reveal your sexual orientation on Facebook, advertisers can still make a good guess based on your “likes” (Katy Perry and Glee are some examples). 

Facebook used to also require the use of one’s “real” name in profiles and could suspend your account if it discovered your profile name didn’t match your legal name. This was a problem especially for trans people who referred to themselves with a name different from the one on their driver’s license. The policy was changed in 2015, allowing people who are asked to verify their name to say they are in a special circumstance, including LGBTQ.

To connect with others online, you might want to opt for a pseudonymous site like Reddit, Discord, or even Twitch—just be careful about anything you say that could identify you, like your town or job. 

Be sure to also read the privacy policies of social media apps before downloading them. Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter all want access to your location, photo album, and other information for the full experience, but you can tailor these app permissions to suit your needs and comfort levels.

The National Cybersecurity Alliance recommends searching for your name, personal information, and keywords that you don’t want to be associated with. If you’re particularly concerned, you can also set up Google Alerts that monitor the web for content in relation to keywords you’ve set. If you do find something about yourself posted online and want to take it down, immediately contact the website’s administrators with your request. 

If you’re chatting with someone about sensitive, private information and want to ensure no one can see your messages, use a chat app that’s end-to-end encrypted, or use a VPN so even your ISP can’t see your traffic. A VPN also encrypts your online activity when you’re on unsecured Wi-Fi at places like cafes. 

Another perk of using a VPN? You’ll have access to LGBTQ+ content that’s been censored, which occurs frequently. In April, Vice reported that software being used by schools to filter content turned out to block LGBTQ+ health sites for being pornographic. Such sites have also been the target of government censorship in various parts of the world. 

What about dating apps? 

LGBTQ+ dating apps are an important service, especially for individuals who aren’t out—but they are a significant safety and online security risk. 

The LGBTQ+ community uses dating apps much more than average. But dating apps are some of the least private services out there: They often ask you to sign in with a social media account, track your location to match you by proximity, and expect you to chat extensively in the app to get to know other users.

Read more: 3 privacy tips when using dating apps

Grindr has so much information on its users that the U.S. raised national security concerns over its Chinese ownership. This led to the sale of the company in 2020 to American investors. But at the same time, gay dating apps have had a poor track record of protecting their users’ privacy. In 2016, researchers demonstrated how they could pinpoint the locations of users on three dating apps (Grindr, Hormet, and Jack’d), even when the users had location features turned off.  

Later in 2018, it was revealed that Grindr, in which users can indicate their HIV status and last-tested date, had exposed this data to two companies that helped optimize the app. And this information was tied to the users’ GPS data, phone IDs, and email addresses. 

And if you’re in a country where homosexuality is criminalized, simply having an LGBTQ+ dating app on your phone could put you at risk of arrest. Moreover, fake accounts are reported to be used to entrap individuals. Under these circumstances, requiring LGBTQ+ users’ locations, names, phone numbers, or social accounts can put them at serious risk.

Read more: Tinder will soon offer background checks on your matches

Respecting others’ privacy

Use discretion when it comes to others’ private information. Take a pause before you post photos or comments about someone else—they might not want their location or identity revealed on the internet. If you experience harassment or abuse, or see it happening to others, block the offenders and report it.

Read more: What does Big Tech know about you? Find out