This week we got one of the most nightmarish tech privacy stories to rear its ugly head on the internet: an investigation into a trove of location data siphoned from a mobile device belonging to one of the Catholic Church’s top officials, Jeffrey Burrill. Like many stories about whatever’s lurking in the average person’s location data, some pretty sensitive details about Burrill’s life ended up unearthed in these datasets: visits to gay bars and nightclubs, among them. Burrill resigned not long after.
Responses to the scoop—which came courtesy of the Pillar, a two-person digital outlet centered around stories on the Catholic church—were mixed. Some obvious bigots cheered on the effort to expunge “sinners” from their Christian institutions. Others decried the piece as a blatant invasion of a dude’s right to privacy. The one question both sides were asking—but nobody seemed to have an answer for—was where this data even came from in the first place.
The National Catholic Reporter was first to report Burrill’s surprise resignation, citing an internal memo being circulated among members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (or USCCB for short) earlier that morning. The Tuesday memo said it was “with sadness” that the org was announcing Burrill was stepping down, after barely serving a year as the Conference’s general secretary. The memo didn’t offer much reasoning behind the sudden shakeup besides cryptically noting that USCCB staffers were tipped off on “impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior” on the Monsignor’s behalf that carried the risk of “becoming a distraction” if left unaddressed.
About an hour later, we got a look at the “media report” in question.
“A mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020—at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities,” the Pillar wrote, noting that these data signals were “from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm,” that the outlet had personally contracted.
With the help of this mysterious firm, the Pillar explained it was able to match the sea of kinda-sorta-not-really-anonymous signals that make up the bulk of many publicly purchasable data sets in order to figure out which one of those anonymous signals belonged to Burrill’s device.
“Commercially available app signal data does not identify the names of app users, but instead correlates a unique numerical identifier to each mobile device using particular apps,” the outlet explained in its blog. “Signal data, collected by apps after users consent to data collection, is aggregated and sold by data vendors. It can be analyzed to provide timestamped location data and usage information for each numbered device.”
After deducing that one particular device seemed to consistently frequent Burrill’s residence, a lake house belonging to Burrill’s family, and the USCCB HQ during meetings where Burrill was in attendance, the reporters figured that this was indeed... Burrill’s phone. When they mapped out where else this device wound up over the past three years, they found a roadmap littered with gay clubs and bars, all pinged by the “near-daily” signals beamed out every time Burrill opened Grindr on his device.
In other words, either an extremely gay thief was pilfering this guy’s phone multiple times per week, or Burrill was quietly suffering through the same closeted hell that comes with the Catholic Church’s draconian attitudes toward queer clergy.
It’s somewhat surreal to think about—but over its decade of existence, Grindr’s gone from being one of the biggest names in gay hookup culture to being an app that’s synonymous with egregiously harming those same communities. Last spring, for example, the platform became the weapon of choice for Moroccan personalities looking to forcibly out gay users on the platform as part of a tone-deaf social media prank that’s resulted in at least one Grindr user’s suicide. More recently, we’ve seen homophobes use the platform to stalk and sometimes murder gay men looking to hook up in Ireland, Belgium, and Louisiana.
When asked about the Burrill case, a Grindr spokesperson told Gizmodo that it “[does] not believe Grindr is the source of the data behind the blog’s unethical, homophobic witch hunt.”
“We have looked closely at this story, and the pieces simply do not add up. Grindr has policies and systems in place to protect personal data,” they said, conveniently sidestepping the ways the company has allowed user’s “protected data” to be exploited for years.
Another blog published by The Catholic News Agency, another Faith-focused outlet that formerly employed the two reporters behind The Pillar’s story, goes a bit deeper on what these exploits look like. The blog, which was published the day before their investigation came out, was centered on the impending threat of “private parties using national security-style surveillance technology,” specifically to “track the movements and activities” of Church personnel. And the Agency knew that this tech existed because it had been pitched this exact story back in 2018:
The issue was first raised in 2018, when a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency.
This party claimed to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular “hook-up” apps, such as Grindr and Tinder, and to pinpoint their locations using the internet addresses of their computers or mobile devices.
The proposal was to provide this information privately to Church officials in the hopes that they would discipline or remove those found to be using these technologies to violate their clerical vows and possibly bring scandal to the Church.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this nameless character appeared in the wake of a steady stream of reports detailing the absurd amounts of data being shared with the many data brokers and adtech platforms Grindr was using to subsidize its free app. When confronted with questions about why these companies weren’t only tapping into their precise location, but their HIV status, ethnic background, or... really anything else, the company’s oft-repeated defense was that data shared with these middlemen were encrypted, and unidentifiable. In a more recent blog titled “Setting The Record Str8,” the company proudly declared that its systems were designed to only share basic, hashed identifiers—the exact kind that were used to pinpoint Burrill’s alleged device.
Obviously, only Grindr knows if Grindr is telling the truth. But these sorts of adtech middlemen the platform’s relying on have a years-long track record of lying through their teeth if it means it can squeeze platforms and publishers for a few more cents per user. Grindr, meanwhile, has a years-long track record of blithely accepting these lies, even when they mean multiple lawsuits from regulators and slews of irate users.
Right now, Grindr’s apps on Android and iOS both list 25 separate pieces of tech pulling data from the app somewhere behind the scenes, according to the most recent reports from AppsFigures. All of these partners, in some way or another, are trying to get a slice of the surprisingly lucrative LGBT consumer class, as are the countless companies that piggyback off of these company’s data. Thanks to the sheer scale of advertising companies today—not to mention the staggering lack of substantial regulation, there’s no way to know for sure who these companies are, or what they’re doing with those secondhand figures. Are they microtargeting people who support LGBT causes? Are they quietly profiling queer people of color? Are they cobbling together more data about more Catholic figures? TBD. The only thing that’s almost assured is that these nightmare scenarios are making someone, somewhere, a whole lot of cash.