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Firmin DeBrabanderAugust 02, 2021
In this Wednesday, May 29, 2019 file photo, a woman looks at the Grindr app on her mobile phone in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Many are appalled by the scandal surrounding Monsignor Burrill, the secretary general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose use of the gay dating app Grindr was recently exposed by analysis of a data trove received by the Catholic publication The Pillar. And many are no doubt pleased with revelations that expose the hypocrisy of a Catholic priest—again. Others wonder if we are not on the verge of a witch hunt, where the bad behavior of other priests and bishops will be revealed through their digital activities.

What does this incident mean for the rest of us, lay Catholics and ordinary citizens alike? What lessons should we take? I can think of a few.

For one thing, the monsignor’s “outing” underlines the reality that our data is not and cannot be safe in the digital age. There is little we can do to fix this state of affairs—especially as we become ever more dependent on digital technology to do basic chores and tasks, like shopping for groceries, arranging our schedule and finding the quickest way to the office.

Many are no doubt pleased with revelations that expose the hypocrisy of a Catholic priest—again. But what does this incident mean for the rest of us?

One expert sought to assuage fears stemming from Monsignor Burrill’s case, suggesting that the priest was a special target here, attacked by deep-pocketed agents bent on taking him down. This is an exceptional case—still worrisome but beyond the pale for most of us.

Another expert suggests otherwise. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, a professor of mathematics at Imperial College, London, says of the Burrill incident that “a researcher or team of analysts can identify an individual with access to just a few data points.” This seems closer to the truth. We betray our identity in a variety of simple and unremarkable ways. Mr. Montjoye explains that your cell phone will send signals from a few places that you frequent throughout the day; these data points can be used to pin you down, when matched with other information about you, like “real estate records, social media posts or even published agendas.”

The technology scholar Bruce Schneier made a similar point in his landmark book Data and Goliath in 2015. He wished to dispel any comfort we might take in the fact that there is an ocean of data out there; as data proliferates, ours could get lost in the torrent, and we are relatively safe. Mr. Schneier counters that it is not hard for spies to pick us out. Beyond a certain point—“if you eliminate the top 100 movies everyone watches,” for example, “our movie-watching habits are all pretty individual.”

The monsignor’s “outing” underlines the reality that our data is not and cannot be safe in the digital age.

Indeed, through casual conversations at parties, I have discovered my taste on Netflix is unique. The same goes for our book preferences and our shopping proclivities. Taken together, all of these patterns point to a unique person with distinctive habits and tastes. Not to mention that we betray our identity through the location data on our cell phone. But “you don’t even need all that data,” Mr. Schneier contends. “95% of Americans can be identified by name from just four time/data/location points.”

Increasingly, our spies don’t even need any data to identify us—our metadata will do. For example, analysts can pinpoint us according to how we hold our cell phones—at what angle—and swipe the screen. Apparently, they have determined that that is unique to each of us. As is the way we drag our mouse across the computer screen. Researchers have written, furthermore, that we disclose our location on our cell phones even when GPS is turned off.

The recently revealed Pegasus Project should also give us concern. Apple has long bragged about the impregnability of its iPhones. Perhaps our spies do not need much data to pinpoint us—but what if they cannot access said data? It turns out that an Israeli firm, the NSO Group, developed and sold the Pegasus spyware, which, for at least the last five years, has blown through Apple’s iPhone protections, enabling dubious government actors to spy on select journalists, activists, lawyers and the like. Instead of being ahead of our spies, the reality is that Apple must play a constant game of catch up with innovators like the NSO Group, who can breach the iPhone’s walls with regularity.

The seeming invisibility of our online presence makes it easy to lie to ourselves about our behavior, proclivities, temptations, weaknesses and desires.

The case of Monsignor Burrill also reminds us of the curious psychological and moral effect of digital media. It provides the illusion that we are alone and unwatched—that we are in our own private bubble, which others cannot penetrate, where our anonymity is safe. This illusion inspires much irrational behavior and rude communication online. People feel removed from onlookers and addressees and are more prone to speak freely—i.e., roughly, curtly, insultingly. This has proven disastrous for digital discourse and, ultimately, political discourse, too.

The seeming invisibility of our online presence makes it easy to lie to ourselves about our behavior, proclivities, temptations, weaknesses and desires. We feel removed from ourselves, too, and don’t have to face up to the implications of our actions (at least not immediately). We need to be more reflective and conscious of our digital activities and understand that they are part of us, too. They reflect who we are, for better or for worse, and we cannot escape the picture they compose.

By their nature, digital technologies hurry us along. They urge us to cut corners, look for convenience, and think less—indeed, they promise to relieve us of too much thinking. Social media and various apps (Grindr among them) are designed to suck us in and down the rabbit hole of posts and likes and swipes. Families, schools, communities—church groups, too—must do what they can to inculcate careful digital etiquette, that is, habits of attentiveness and self-consciousness. They must urge us to be thoughtful, responsible and aware in everything we do, online and off.

Finally, this incident might be a lesson in humility and honesty for the bishops, and any who believe the president should be denied Communion because he defies church teaching. Instead of casting judgment, censuring wayward believers and paring down the ranks of the faithful to those who are suitably orthodox, the church is better served by reaching out and expanding its embrace to those who need the healing love of Christ. Do we need more reminders still that we are all of us sinners, imperfect, unknown and striving in our own way?

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