They can see everything.
An evangelical Southern Baptist church known as Gracepoint was caught relying on a little more than God’s watchful gaze to keep an eye on members of its congregation. And if a church feels compelled to clarify that it’s not a cult, well…
New members joining Gracepoint’s congregation are asked to install an app called Covenant Eyes, which is explicitly marketed as an "anti-pornography" app. And according to a must-read investigation by Wired, Covenant Eyes spies on members’ web traffic, takes a screenshot of their phone screens every single minute, and then sends all this information to an "accountability partner." In reality, it's more like spyware.
One member who has since left the congregation told the magazine that they received accusatory emails from Gracepoint which contained eerily detailed reports of his digital activity, ranging from everything to his mundane browsing habits to even flagging a search of the hashtag "#Gay."
App of Shame
Covenant Eyes is part of a broader but lesser known spectrum of apps known as "shameware," used by religious groups and parents to, yes, shame people into dropping porn habits and other "immoral" activity.
But as it turns out, Wired found that these apps, namely Covenant Eyes as well as Accountable2You, are doing a lot more than monitoring users’ porn habits. They're also reportedly abusing accessibility permissions — special permissions for features that are meant to help out persons with disabilities use the devices — on phones to surveil virtually everything a user does with them. That includes the aforementioned screenshot capturing, collecting every visited website, and logging which apps are opened.
And Gracepoint isn't alone in employing the shady tech, as Wired discovered that several other churches coerce members into installing various forms of shameware apps.
Google took down both Covenant Eyes and Accountable2You from the Google Play store after Wired presented the company with its findings, deeming the apps to be in violation of its policies. However, they’re still available on iOS.
"I’ve never seen anyone who’s been on one of these apps feel better about themselves in the long term," University of California, Los Angeles pornography researcher Nicole Praus told Wired. "These people just end up feeling like there’s something wrong with them when the reality is that there likely isn’t."
More on spying apps: Grindr Slammed With Huge Fine for Spying on Users