Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Priest Was Outed by His Phone’s Location Data, Likely Through Ad Tech Middle Parties

This is one of those stories that gets into some difficult territory as far as my writing about it goes. These are not light topics.

JD Flynn and Ed Condon, the Pillar:

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced his resignation Tuesday, after The Pillar found evidence the priest engaged in serial sexual misconduct, while he held a critical oversight role in the Catholic Church’s response to the recent spate of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals.

[…]

According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, 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.

I do not wish to devalue any reader’s faith; if you are Catholic, please know that I am not criticizing you specially or your beliefs.

The Catholic Church has a history of opposing LGBTQ rights and treating queer people with a unique level of hatred — this report says that the use of Grindr and similar apps “present[s] challenges to the Church’s child protection efforts”, invoking the dehumanizing myth tying gay men to pedophilic behaviour, an association frequently made by the Catholic Church.1 I find it difficult to link to this story because of statements like these, and it offends me how this priest was outed.

But I also think it is important to give you, reader, the full context of what is disclosed, and what is not. For example, I understand that Catholic priests have an obligation to be celibate and, theoretically, the Pillar would investigate any clergy it believed was stepping out of line. But this specifically involves one priest and Grindr, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For a start, how did the Pillar know? Did it get tipped off about Burrill’s activities so it would know where to look, or did it receive data dumps related to the phones of significant American clergy? And what about other dating apps, like Tinder or Bumble? Surely, there must be priests in America using one of those apps to engage in opposite-sex relationships; why not an exposé on one of them? This report does not give any indication about how it began investigating. I find that odd, to say the least.

The reason I am linking to this is because of that data sharing angle. As reported by Shoshana Wodinsky at Gizmodo, Grindr has repeatedly insisted on the anonymity of its data collection and ad tech ties:

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.”

[…]

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.

Wodinsky points to a piece at the Catholic News Agency — which both Pillar writers both used to work for — claiming that an anonymous party had “access to technology capable of identifying clergy […] found to be using [dating apps] to violate their clerical vows”. It will come as no surprise to you that I find it revolting that someone can expose this behaviour through advertising data. It is a wailing klaxon for regulation and reform.

But, also, is it ethical for a news organization to acquire data like this for the purpose of publicly outing someone or sharing their private activities? In a 2018 story, the New York Times showed how it was possible to identify people using similar data. But the newsworthiness of that story was not in individuals’ habits and activities, it was about how easy it is to misuse advertising and tracking data. And where is the line on this? Are journalists and publications going to begin mining the surveillance of ad tech companies in search of news stories? I would be equally disturbed if this were instead a report that exposed the infidelity of a “family values”-type lawmaker. I think the Pillar exposed a worrisome capability with this report, and also initiated a rapid ethical slide.

Thank you for making it through this post. As compensation, please enjoy some impressive finger athletics.


  1. The authors clarify that they are ostensibly concerned about the relative ease with which minors are able to use dating and hookup apps. That is a fair criticism. But this digression cannot be separated from this harmful belief, nor from the Church’s history of sexual abuse of minors. That abuse was not caustic because the clergy involved were engaged in same-sex relations, it was because they were powerful adults molesting children. ↩︎