Should Church Or College Know If You Visit Adult Websites? The Unsettling World Of Accountability Apps

Zinger Key Points
  • Accountability apps promise to help people keep conducts in line with what they claim to strive for.
  • Rocketreach estimates Covenant Eyes to have an annual revenue of $26M.

Social media and advertising giants such as Alphabet Inc. GOOG GOOGL and Meta Inc.FB routinely make news with their infringements on user privacy, but now technology is allowing churches and educational organizations to monitor user activity.

Covenant Eyes is a piece of software used by organizations to spy on their members' online lives.

According to Wired, evangelical Southern Baptist church Gracepoint uses the application to track its followers' online activity, with some rather unsettling episodes taking place.

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Gracepoint is likely not the only organization leveraging this software to "protect" church members. Christianity Today promoted Covenant Eyes and similar software among "helpful tips for guarding church employees and equipment" back in 2010.

Spyware? More Like 'Shameware'

Grant Hao-Wei Lin reportedly came out to a Gracepoint church leader who asked him to install Covenant Eyes to help him "control all of his urges." Within a month of installing the app, he started receiving emails from his church leader, with questions such as "anything you need to tell me?” and featuring a list of content he viewed online over the prior week.

The church leader highlighted that Lin searched #Gay on an Instagram viewer — an interaction flagged as "mature" by the accountability application.

Gracepoint also "serves" the students of more than 70 U.S. campuses and had 450 church members sign up for monitoring through Covenant Eyes. One former Gracepoint member purportedly refused to call it spyware, saying that "it’s more like ‘shameware,’ and it’s just another way the church controls you.”

The current version of Covenant Eyes was developed by Michael Holm, a mathematician who previously worked with the National Security Agency — the same agency that Edward Snowden warned the world was conducting mass surveillance. It can purportedly distinguish between the pornographic and non-pornographic images that are viewed on the devices by capturing everything on screen and analyzing it before sending it to a server that saves the data.

Holm told The Christian Post in 2019 that "the battleground has moved from the heavily-hampered world of network text-parsing right up to the visual input to your eye."

Covenant Eyes spokesperson Dan Armstrong expressed concerned about people being monitored without their consent.

“Accountability relationships are better off between people who already know each other and want the best for one another, such as close personal friends and family members," he said.

Gracepoint released a statement clarifying that "only those that volunteer to serve as staff members are expected to have some sort of accountability software or arrangement." While the firm may be "concerned" about such coercion, it still profits off of it. According to AppFigures data, over 50,000 people have downloaded Covenant Eyes over the past year.

Rocketreach estimates the firm to have an annual revenue of $26 million.

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'A Bit Too Heavy'

Kang said that church leaders were instructed to monitor congregants’ phone activity, but usually the activity is checked by a person designated by the congregants themselves. Leaders are said to be discouraged from being the accountability partners as "that seems a bit too heavy."

Despite those statements, all former Gracepoint congregants that Wired spoke to had their church leader as their accountability partner.

Wired's analysis of both Covenant Eyes and Accountable2You revealed that the applications exploited Android's accessibility permissions to continuously capture screenshots, detect which applications are being used and record every website visited.

In Lin's case, this included Amazon purchases, articles he read and whose profiles he viewed on Instagram. Covenant Eyes even flagged his online psychiatry textbook as "highly mature" (the highest sensibility level).

During Wired's testing, a controlled device viewing the United States Center for Disease Control's website for LGBTQ youth resources resulted in the accountability partner immediately receiving a "questionable activity report" that warned about the user visiting a "highly questionable" website.

A former Accountable2You user told the outlet that those applications are not simply used to forbid the viewing of pornographic content and instead, "it's about making you conform to what your pastor wants." This particular user "had to sit down and have a conversation with him [her pastor] after I Wikipedia’d an article about atheism."

After Wired contacted Alphabet about Covenant Eyes and Accountable2You, both applications were removed from the Google Play store due to abuse of the accessibility tools.

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