The Washington Post reported last month on a conservative Catholic group that spent millions of dollars to buy location data from a private-sector data broker in order to identify gay priests and report them to their bishops. This is a story every American should be aware of — and not just because of how it affected those priests.
You don’t need to share the faith of those facing deeply personal conflicts between their faith and their sexuality to have sympathy for those men, and revulsion at the activists who took it upon themselves to pry into their personal lives out of some twisted homophobic zeal. An excellent 2019 work of reporting in the New York Times explored the anguish and struggles of many such priests.
But neither do you have to be someone facing such a conflict — or any person who needs some private space to grapple with their sexual or gender identity — to worry about the sorry state of privacy that made these vigilante investigations possible.
As a result of Congress’s failure to enact overarching privacy protections, combined with unethical practices by many companies, we’re in a world where location data is collected about a significant proportion of us without our knowledge or permission, and bought and sold by a multibillion-dollar ecosystem of companies that specialize in such data. According to the Post:
One report prepared for bishops says the group’s sources are data brokers who got the information from ad exchanges, which are sites where ads are bought and sold in real time, like a stock market. The group cross-referenced location data from the apps and other details with locations of church residences, workplaces, and seminaries to find clergy who were allegedly active on the apps…
Although no names were in the original data from brokers, it included enough identifying details and location pings that the group was able to analyze it for specific locations and narrow down likely people using the apps…
The group also focused on devices that spent multiple nights at a rectory, for example, or if a hookup app was used for a certain number of days in a row in some other church building, such as a seminary or an administrative building.
Gay priests are far from the only ones who want to keep elements of their sexual lives private. How many other people could be harmed by the use of location data by various busybodies, moral crusaders, political rivals, or other enemies? Anti-abortion activists are already trying to use private data against those seeking reproductive health care. And think of someone running for office, embroiled in a local homeowner’s association fight, or battling with a neighbor over a zoning law. Any of those people could find themselves subject to such investigations. As the historian Henry Steele Commager once observed, there’s nothing as nasty as a good, local school fight.
And even though few such antagonists are likely to pursue such a strategy, everyone has to worry that somebody will. Aside from any direct harm suffered by the victims of data vigilantes, we are all affected by the chill that comes from living in a society where insufficient legal protections make such things possible. It’s not just the intense harm to the people directly affected, it’s also the more subtle harm to all of us who then become rationally paranoid and must live with that fear.