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Priest outed via Grindr app highlights rampant data tracking


When a religious publication used data from smartphone apps to deduce the sexual orientation of a high-ranking Roman Catholic official, it exposed a problem that goes far beyond a debate about church doctrine and priestly celibacy.
With few restrictions in the US On what businesses can do with the vast amount of data they collect from web page visits, apps, and location tracking built into phones, there’s not much to stop. similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone who is the target of another person’s curiosity or malice.
Citing allegations of “possible inappropriate behavior,” the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the resignation of its top administrative official, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, on Tuesday ahead of a report by Catholic news outlet The Pillar that probed his private romantic life.
The Pillar said it obtained “commercially available” location data from a provider it did not name that “correlated” with Burrill’s phone to determine that he had visited gay bars and private residences while using Grindr, a popular gay dating app. .
“Cases like this are only going to multiply,” said Álvaro Bedoya, director of the Center for Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School.
Privacy activists have long called for laws to prevent such abuses, although in the US they only exist in a few states and then in various forms. Bedoya said Burrill’s firing should highlight the danger of this situation and should ultimately prompt Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to act.
Privacy concerns are often interpreted in abstract terms, he said, “when it really comes down to: ‘Can you explore your sexuality without being fired by your employer? Can you live in peace after an abusive relationship without fear?’ “. Many victims of abuse are very concerned about making sure their abuser cannot find them again.
As a congressional staff member in 2012, Bedoya worked on legislation that would have banned apps that allowed abusers to secretly track the location of their victims via smartphone data. But it was never approved.
“No one can claim that this is a surprise,” Bedoya said. “No one can claim that they were not warned.”
Privacy advocates have been warning for years that location and personal data collected by advertisers and accumulated and sold by brokers can be used to identify individuals, are not protected as well as they should, and are not regulated by laws that require the clear consent of the person being tracked. Legal and technical protections are necessary for smartphone users to be able to back off, they say.
The Pillar alleges Burrill’s “serial sexual misconduct”: Homosexual activity is considered sinful under Catholic doctrine and priests are expected to remain celibate. The online publication’s website describes it as focused on investigative journalism that “can help the Church better serve its sacred mission, the salvation of souls.”
Its editors did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about how they obtained the data. The report only said that the data comes from one of the data brokers that aggregates and sells app signal data, and that the publication also hired an independent data consulting firm to authenticate it.
US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said the incident once again confirms the dishonesty of an industry that falsely claims to safeguard the privacy of phone users.
“Experts have warned for years that data collected by advertising companies from Americans’ phones could be used to track them and reveal the most personal details of their lives. Unfortunately, they were right,” he said in a statement. “Data brokers and advertising companies have lied to the public, assuring them that the information they collected was anonymous. As this terrible episode shows, those claims were false: people can be traced and identified.”
Wyden and other lawmakers asked the FTC last year to investigate the industry. It needs to “step up and protect Americans from these outrageous privacy violations, and Congress must pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation,” he added.
Norway’s data privacy watchdog concluded earlier this year that Grindr shared users’ personal data with various third parties with no legal basis and said it would impose a fine of $ 11.7 million (NOK 100 million). ), equivalent to 10% of the global revenue of the California company. .
Data leaked to ad tech companies for targeted ads included GPS location, user profile information, and the simple fact that certain people were using Grindr, which could indicate their sexual orientation.
Sharing such information could put someone at risk of being attacked, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority said. It argued that the way Grindr asked users for permission to use their information violated the European Union requirements for “valid consent.” Users were not given the opportunity to opt out of sharing data with third parties and were forced to accept Grindr’s privacy policy in its entirety, he said, adding that users were not properly informed about data sharing.
Advertising partners Grindr shared data with included Twitter, The Xandr service from AT&T and other ad technology companies OpenX, AdColony and Smaatosaid the Norwegian watchdog. Their investigation followed a complaint from a Norwegian consumer group that found similar data leakage issues on other popular dating apps such as OkCupid and Tinder.
In a statement, Grindr called The Pillar’s report a “homophobic and unethical witch hunt” and said it “did not believe” it was the source of the data used. The company said it has policies and systems to protect personal data, although it did not say when they were implemented. The Pillar said that the app data it obtained about Burrill covered parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

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