SCRUFF Takes on Cyber Safety

Note: No material connection or financial stake in any of the brands, companies or individuals mentioned here.

There was a time when the Internet was anonymous. It's not now. The protective facelessness of the online world is a myth -- largely of our own doing. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, Youtube, SCRUFF, Grindr, Tindr, Lavendr, blogs, vlogs -- we willingly broadcast our gay lives to the world 24/7. And the world is paying attention. You can lead an otherwise virtuous life and still have your orientation, and any number of personal facts (true or not), found out with a little research; just Google my name and you'll figure out where my predilections lay in a flash.

This becomes a real issue when LGBTQs venture out of the safety of the progressive West for destinations further afield.

"Once headlines started coming out from the Middle East and specifically in Russia, where the police and other individuals were using apps to entrap gay men, it gave us a renewed motivation to build something more comprehensive and global," Eric Silverberg, the brains behind SCRUFF, tells me. And he's changed the entire nature of his app accordingly.

"Increasingly, foreign authorities in countries that criminalize homosexuality are taking to GPS enabled social media networking apps like Scruff, posing as LGBT to entrap its users, resulting in blackmail, violence and arrests -- a HUGE help in thwarting those kind of attacks."

What is the world coming to, you may think, when a hook-up app goes socially responsible? The answer is "deadly." The only thing more spectacular than the level of state-sanctioned homophobia in, say, Russia, is the fact that gays are still visiting . Most of us aren't stupid; we tone the gaiety down the second we step off the plane in such a destination, a phenomenon known as the travel closet. And for the most part, we play it extremely safe (or at least, we should). But gosh darn it, some of us, we just can't help from, ahem, "sampling the local fare." And so turn to our trusty hook-up apps, rather than brave the heavily-targeted bar scene, if there even is one. It's all about subterfuge. Or so we think.

SCRUFF may have started as a bear equivalent to Grindr, but Silverberg recognizes that apps are in a unique position to insure the safety of its members in hostile territory. It is not a pleasant thought, but how much do we really know about the guy behind the photo? If you think that you can fly under the radar using hook-up apps in Russia , Saudi Arabia, or some other Orwellian society that has made it illegal to be gay, think again. It took Big Brother, and a few particularly venomous individuals, all of two nanoseconds to figure out for what SCRUFF and similar apps were being used, and promptly began using them to spy on the local gay population with the goal of arresting them, blackmailing them, killing them, or all of the above.

And that is what ultimately led to the newly-launched SCRUFF Gay Travel Advisories, or GTA. Separate from the main SCRUFF grid-site, and not restricted to members of the app, the openly-available GTA is constructed along the same lines as the invaluable CIA World Factbook, listing what gays and lesbians can expect, socially and legally, upon entering a particular country.

"One of our members in Saudi Arabia reported police were using apps to entrap people," recalls Silverberg. "And we were the only app at the time that sent out an alert to advise people to be smart when meeting in person, and localized it into Arabic. Then we started thinking how we could really do this in a bigger way."

"Bigger way" means up to 80 countries (and counting) on the site. The list may seem oddly lapdash; popular destinations like India and Morocco are on it, but equally popular South Africa and Japan aren't. And the reason is simple: You aren't likely to be bashed to death in Cape Town or Tokyo as opposed to Mumbai or Marrakech. While foreigners rarely get targeted by local authorities, it would be a lie to say they never are. And wherever you go, you are always subject to local law; the U.S. State Department can fix a lot of things, but America's influence only goes so far outside our own borders, just as, say, Egypt's peters out beyond its
lands. This is given rise to the hard, fast rule of gay travel: never get involved with natives.

But the natives are usually the ones with the best advice, and Silverberg knows this. To that end, along with the GTA, he introduced SCRUFF Ambassadors, who, as the name suggests are local men acting as boots on the ground. And meeting those boots is also safer; SCRUFF no longer gives exact locations of members abroad, only the immediate area. It blurs the prying eyes of the authorities.

Says Silverberg: "We will show you a grid of guys in a given Scruff Venture
city who have volunteered to answer questions from guys who are from out of town or are raveling, and can advise on things like where to stay, go, what to do. We also have a number of additional features per Venture cities including both showing you a grid of guys who are online in that city right now, so you can get a sense of who lives in popular travel destinations around the world."

In this way, SCRUFF may be the wave of the future, moving away from a simple phone app to a genuine social network (which is how Silverberg already describes his creation.)

It is one more simply-added layer of safety we as gay men can take in places that hate gay men because they are gay men. And there are more places like that than you think. Once can never be too safe.

Eric Silverberg, CEO of Scruff

What is the GTA?

"Gay Travel Advisories" are a new service to keep our members informed and safer when they travel to regions around the world that have criminalized
same-sex acts. So, specifically, the service will provide our members, in
actual words, when they arrive, detail the laws and potential consequences
of a condition of same sex acts in a respective region. And our members can
click through and get additional information, sometimes including the
actual text of the laws. This service is in effect for more than 80
countries around the world, and is built atop a report thats published
annually by a non-profit in Switzerland called ILGA. They publish this
report about laws that criminalize same-sex acts and homosexuality, and so
we adapted it to a service that is integrated directly into the Scruff app.
And not only that, we built a stand-alone website so that if you simply do
a Google search for gay travel and name one of these 80 countries, that
site will come up, and will describe the laws and any relevant information.

The last thing I would like to mention is that we actually put this content
into the public domain, so that anyone, any app, any company can build
their won gay travel advisory service if they liked. So we really see this
as a public service, both for our members and for the broader gay community.

Were you approached from the outside to develop this, or was it from within
the company?

This began when one of our members in Saudi Arabia reported police were
using apps to entrap people. And we were the only app at the time that sent
out an alert to advise people to be smart when meeting in person, and
localized it into Arabic. And this member was especially grateful, and that
got us thinking how we could really do this in a bigger way. And then once
headlines started coming out from the Middle East and specifically in
Russia, where the police and other individuals were using apps to entrap
gay men, it gave us a renewed motivation to build something more
comprehensive and global. And that is what ultimately became Scruff Gay
Travel Advisories.

And the Ambassadors?

The GTAs are a part of a broader suite of travel features the Scruff has
really been working to build in the last couple years, because we really
see ourselves not only for finding dates, friendships, hook-ups, and all of
the above, but we also see ourselves as a social network. And one that is
especially useful when guys travel. And so GTA was launched first, as I
said, to keep our members informed and safer when they travel, and then
late last year we unveiled Scuff Venture, which presents a number of
cities, more than 500, around the world and includes a number of features
in each city, including Ambassadors.

We will show you a grid of guys in a given Scruff Venture city who have
volunteered to be Ambassadors who are happy to answer questions from guys
who are from out of town or are traveling, and can advise on things like
where to stay, go, what to do. We also have a number of additional features
per Venture cities including both showing you a grid of guys who are online
in that city right now, so you can get a sense of who lives in popular
travel destinations around the world.

We also show you people who are traveling to that city, both currently on a
trip or about to visit the destination in the upcoming weeks. And
incidentally, I am sitting in the Salt Lake City Airport having just
visited Park City, UT, for Gay Ski Week this last weekend. And I was
personally able to use Scruff Venture to chat with guys who were going to
be at this event a couple of weeks before people were arriving. And then
you get a picture of who the other visitors are while I was at the event by
navigating into one of these specific grids. It's part of a comprehensive
set of features focused on travel to make Scruff more useful to our members
and to the gay community.

What is Scruff?

Scruff is a gay social network. A global gay social network, and our
mission is to connect gay guys with each other in the global gay community.
And when you work in the gay community, the that means a lot of things.
That means dates, hook-ups, friendships, and sometimes just advice: where
to go, where to stay, what to see and do. And we have really been pushing
the boundaries because, I think, gay men have always pushed the boundaries
of how technology is thought of and how technology is used. I mean, from
the early days on the Internet, specifically I am thinking of Gay While
Traveling, and you can see an evolution from that in the early 90s to apps
today. And Scruff in 2016 really does encompass all these different
activities that gay guys want to use apps for, whether its chatting,
meeting up for a date, or planning their next destination or planing their
next travel.

Anything I missed?

The most important message form my perspective is that Scruff Venture
really expands the way you can use gay apps. I think that there is an
assumption that gay apps are just for dating and hookups, and Scruff
Venture really got its inspiration from apps like AirBNB and TripAdvisor,
but integrated it in a way that feels very natural and authentic, and
useful for our members and for the gay community and really lets you travel
in a different way. The use case that I think is the coolest that every
time we've mentioned it people nod their heads and say, 'Yeah! That's
great!' is the one where gay traveler finds themselves in a new city and
wants to go sightseeing. And in a typical gay app, they'll see a grid of
guys, and most of those guys are probably local and aren't going to be able
to connect with you until the end of the day. But with Scruff Venture, and
with our new travel functionality, it makes it really easy to find fellow
traveler to go sightseeing with. Maybe something more, but not necessarily.
And I think that it is born out of the fact that gay men travel
differently, and gay men are much more social when they travel. Scruff is
really tapping into this social behavior and bringing it online and making
it even easier and making it possible in even more cities. We've seen a
really great response. With what you can do with a gay up.