- VICE - JULY 21, 2021 - Joseph Cox -
The Inevitable Weaponization of App Data Is Here
A Substack publication used location data from Grindr to out a priest without their consent.
It finally happened. After years of warning from researchers, journalists, and even governments, someone used highly sensitive location data from a smartphone app to track and publicly harass a specific person. In this case, Catholic Substack publication The Pillarsaid it used location data ultimately tied to Grindr to trace the movements of a priest, and then outed him publicly as potentially gay without his consent. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the outing led to his resignation.
The news starkly demonstrates not only the inherent power of location data, but how the chance to wield that power has trickled down from corporations and intelligence agencies to essentially any sort of disgruntled, unscrupulous, or dangerous individual. A growing market of data brokers that collect and sell data from countless apps has made it so that anyone with a bit of cash and effort can figure out which phone in a so-called anonymized dataset belongs to a target, and abuse that information.
"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," Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard in a statement, responding to the incident. "Data brokers and advertising companies have lied to the public, assuring them that the information they collected was anonymous. As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus—individuals can be tracked and identified."
In short, The Pillar says that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, who was the general secretary of the U.S. bishops' conference (USCCB) before his resignation, visited gay bars and other locations while using gay dating app Grindr.
"An analysis of app data signals correlated to Burrill’s mobile device shows the priest also visited gay bars and private residences while using a location-based hookup app in numerous cities from 2018 to 2020, even while traveling on assignment for the U.S. bishops’ conference," the outlet wrote. The Pillar says the location data is "commercially available records of app signal data," and that it obtained the records from "a data vendor" and then authenticated them with a data consulting firm.
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