What Dating Apps Can Do to Protect Users from Alleged Killers Like Bruce McArthur
McArthur, a heavy user of gay hookup apps, is accused of killing at least eight men.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, who has now been charged with eight counts of first-degree murder was reported to have used a lot of popular gay dating apps and sites. Everything from DaddyHunt to Growlr (an app aimed at gay bears), and even the fetish site, Recon. It’s unclear whether he’d met any of those eight victims online, but it’s likely given the haunting report of one man, who met McArthur using gay dating apps. The man was bound by McArthur while unconscious and put in what he described as a “kill position” without him knowing.
Toronto Police have been criticized for not taking the missing persons’ cases—which date back to at least 2012—seriously and dismissing the community’s fear that there was a serial killer hunting gay men, particularly men of color. While certainly a single company is not responsible for customers that abuse its services, was there anything dating app developers could have done to further protect Toronto’s LGBTQ community? And can they do anything now to protect future communities from violent predators?
I reached out to gay dating app and sites like Growlr, Grindr, Recon, and SilverDaddies but none of them responded to me.
McArthur reportedly used popular dating app, Scruff, in search of kinky men, like so many others on there; however, in the context of what we now know, his profile does seem disconcerting: “Enjoy finding a guys [sic] buttons and then pushing them to your limits.”
Scruff’s founder and CEO, Eric Silverberg, declined to answer specific questions relating to the McArthur case as well but wrote that they encourage users with concerns about the app to contact a support representative who will respond within 24 to 48 hours. He added that they have worked closely with law enforcement officials in the past with issues of public safety. The Toronto Police have yet to reach out to Scruff about the McArthur case, according to Silverberg.
On December 5, 2017, the Toronto Police had issued a warning to the community about online dating apps, which included three safety tips for meeting people online. This information would’ve been emailed to those who subscribe to their news releases and shared through their social media accounts. Even if someone is active within the scene, it’d be easy to miss this (in this instance, I’m guilty of that myself) and on the apps themselves, there was no warning from police or the companies about an alleged serial killer since the news release wasn’t shared with any of the dating apps or sites.
“I think the other big gap is the police should’ve come to the social apps and asked people to send warnings,” says Sean Howell, president and co-founder of Hornet, a dating app which has over 25 million users worldwide. Howell says that if his app had been notified, they would’ve issued a PSA, something they’ve done in over 100 countries, dealing with a variety of issues.
That said, Howell warns: “I think we can point to [the PSAs], I think maybe every once in a while they’re effective, but I think it’s definitely not something that solves all the problems.”
In Toronto, The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) have taken a different approach, launching their SAFE program. When meeting someone online, it’s smart to tell a friend or family member the details but for those who have nobody to tell because of cultural reasons or otherwise, SAFE fills in the gap. ASAAP has a dedicated email address set up that people can send their date or hook-up details to, along with their contact information. If the user doesn't follow-up within 72 hours, ASAAP will contact the authorities.
There are other stand-alone apps and sites that operate in similar ways. bSafe has several safety features including an SOS button: When pressed, it alerts friends that the user is in danger and sends their GPS location to them, while recording audio and video of the situation. Kitestring is another, which checks up on users via text message. If they don’t respond within a given time frame, a selected contact will be notified with an emergency alert.
In terms of adding safety features to their existing app, Howell said that it was something he would look into and think about, but at the same time, it’s not the thing he wants “to build every day” and gay men have other stresses and issues. The things he worries about in the community are access to health, mental health, entrapment, violence against LGBTQ people, and HIV prevention.
“We do live in a world where there are crazy people and this will happen and I don’t want it to happen if I can do things to prevent it,” Howell says. “But I think one of the worst things I can do is also give people a false sense of security. Like, oh, I did this so that means I’m safe. No, that’s actually not going to mean that you’re safe. That’s going to mean that we known that you were murdered sooner and we have a chance to catch the murderer.”
Whether the police had worked with other gay dating apps or sites on this case is unclear. Toronto Police spokesperson Meaghan Gray says that an online component has been a significant part of the investigation, but no other details can be released.
Obviously, the odds of being murdered by your online date are minuscule. But that's little solace for Toronto's LGBTQ community who’s odds seemed much higher for much too long. Particularly knowing what we now know—that an alleged serial killer was just a click away. There’s an element of risk in everything we do in life though and it’s a matter of how much one is willing to take. It’s silly to think that an app will eliminate the risk of encountering a violent predator completely. It won’t. But with better coordination by the police, apps could warn and inform us so we can better assess the risk that we’re taking.
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