The godless surveillance of anti-porn “shameware” apps

“It really isn’t about pornography,” says Brit, a former Accountable2You user who asked to be identified by her first name only for privacy reasons. “It’s about conforming to what your pastor wants.” Brit says she was asked by her parents to install the app after she was caught viewing pornography, and that her mother and her pastor both own their designated partners for accountability. “I remember having to sit down and have a conversation with him [her pastor] after I wrote an article on atheism on Wikipedia,” she says. “I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to read what I want to read.”

While accountability apps are primarily marketed to parents and families, some also advertise their services to churches. For example, Accountable2You advertises group rates for churches or small groups and has set up multiple landing pages for specific churches where members can sign up. Covenant Eyes, meanwhile, employs a Church and Ministry Outreach leader to help onboard religious organizations.

Accountable2You did not respond to WIRED requests for comment.

Eva Galperin is Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, and co-founder of the Coalition Against Stalkerware. Galperin says agreeing to such surveillance is a big problem. “One of the key elements of consent is allowing a person to feel comfortable saying no,” she says. “One could argue that any app installed in a church is done under duress.” While WIRED didn’t speak to anyone who didn’t know the app was on their phone, which is often the case with spyware, Hao- Wei Lin said he didn’t feel like he was in a position to say no to his church leader when asked to install Covenant Eyes. Gracepoint had secured him a $400-a-month apartment in Berkeley, where he attended college. Without the support of the Church, he might not have been able to live anywhere.

But that’s not the experience of everyone we spoke to. James Nagy is a former member of the Gracepoint Church who, as a former church leader, has stood on both sides of the Covenant Eyes accounts. Gay Nagy was taught from a young age that homosexuality was a sin. So when Gracepoint offered him a software solution that supposedly could help what he saw as a moral dilemma at the time, he jumped at the opportunity. He says he believed a lot of people at Gracepoint were being pressured to install the app, but in his case the pressure came from himself. “Gracepoint wasn’t trying to change me,” says Nagy. “I tried to change.” Now a Presbyterian Church (USA) elder, Nagy was a facilitator at the Reformation Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church, until 2021.

In an effort to curb behavior that churches deem immoral, these accountability apps collect and store highly sensitive personal information from their users, including those under the age of 18. Fortify, which bills itself as an addiction healing app, asks its users to log information about when they last masturbated, where they were when it happened, and what device they were using. While Fortify’s privacy policy states that the company does not sell or otherwise share this data with third parties, its policy allows data to be shared with trusted third parties to perform statistical analysis, although it does not mention who those trusted third parties are. In a phone call, Clay Olsen, CEO of Fortify’s parent company, Impact Suite, clarified that those trusted third parties include companies like Mixpanel, an analytics services company that tracks user interactions with web and mobile applications.

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