“It’s really not about pornography,” says Brit, a former user of Accountable2You who asked to only be identified by her first name, due to privacy concerns. “It’s about making you conform to what your pastor wants.” Brit says she was asked to install the app by her parents after she was caught looking at pornography and that her mother and her pastor were both her designated accountability partners. “I remember I had to sit down and have a conversation with him [her pastor] after I Wikipedia’d an article about atheism,” she says. “I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have some kind of right to read what I want to read.”
While accountability apps are largely marketed to parents and families, some also advertise their services to churches. Accountable2You, for example, advertises group rates for churches or small groups and has set up several landing pages for specific churches where members can sign up. Covenant Eyes, meanwhile, employs a director of Church and Ministry Outreach to help onboard religious organizations.
Accountable2You did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.
Eva Galperin is director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, and cofounder of the Coalition Against Stalkerware. Galperin says consent to such surveillance is a major concern. “One of the key elements of consent is that a person can feel comfortable saying no,” she says. “You could argue that any app installed in a church setting is done in a coercive manner.” While WIRED did not speak to anyone who was unaware that the app was on their phone, which is often the case with spyware, Hao-Wei Lin says he didn’t feel like he was in a position where he could say no to his church leader when he was asked to install Covenant Eyes. Gracepoint had secured him a $400-a-month apartment in Berkeley, where he was attending college. Without the church’s support, he might have had nowhere to live.
But this is not the experience of everyone we spoke to. James Nagy is a former Gracepoint church member who, as a one-time congregation leader, was on both sides of Covenant Eyes reports. Nagy, who is gay, was taught from a young age that homosexuality was a sin. So when Gracepoint offered him a software solution that claimed to be able to help what he then considered to be a moral dilemma, he jumped at the opportunity. He says that while he believed many people at Gracepoint were pressured to install the app, in his case, the pressure came from himself. “Gracepoint didn’t try to change me,” Nagy says. “I tried to change me.” Nagy is now an elder at the Presbyterian Church (USA) and until 2021 was a facilitator with the Reformation Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church.