Covenant Eyes acknowledges privacy concerns, warns churches not to use software for 'spying'

Unsplash/Glenn Carstens-Peters
Unsplash/Glenn Carstens-Peters

What's the difference between accountability and shaming? 

A recent WIRED article reviewing pornography accountability apps like Covenant Eyes and Accountable2You found some troubling privacy issues while suggesting such apps might have a long-term negative impact on their users.

The piece, titled "The Ungodly Surveillance of Anti-Porn 'Shameware' Apps," tells the story of Grant Hao-Wei Lin, a member of Gracepoint, a Southern Baptist network of collegiate churches and parachurch ministries, who installed Covenant Eyes at the recommendation of a church leader.

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Using an image of a stained-glass cross projected onto a dark floor, the article takes an unflattering view of what reporter Dhruv Mehrotra called Covenant Eyes' "omniscience" due to its near-unblinking digital eye that monitors all of a user's online activity. 

With an ability to screen capture images on any device before partially concealing and then sending them to a server, one member of Gracepoint claimed that Covenant Eyes and similar apps can be considered more "shameware" than spyware.

But in a statement shared with The Christian Post, Covenant Eyes spokesperson Dan Armstrong said the company shares "many of the concerns raised" in the WIRED article and that "spying on people is damaging and counterproductive."

"Our usage policy explicitly prohibits using Covenant Eyes to monitor someone without their authorization," said Armstrong. "We do not allow spouses to use Covenant Eyes to spy on one another or employers to secretly monitor employees."

Armstrong said the company turns away parole officers who want to use Covenant Eyes' software to "secretly monitor employees."

Contrary to the app's mission, Armstrong said church leaders shouldn't be using the technology to spy on their congregants. Instead, he said, congregants and others should decide of their own free will to establish accountability relationships among their friends and peers. 

"This creates safer relationships where shame has less of a grip and real growth can take place," he said. "With a power imbalance in the relationship, shame tends to increase and a person who might want to overcome a problem is instead pushed to hide it further."

Under the user policy, users agree that their computing devices may be monitored and reported to their "allies." The software monitors things such as "screen images, network activity, times of use, names and window titles of applications used." 

"Covenant Eyes promises that any information collected will only be provided to you or your Allies as per this agreement, except upon specific request by you or your active Allies, and limited to the purposes of said request," the policy reads.

In response to the article, Gracepoint released a statement clarifying that "only those that volunteer to serve as staff members are expected to have some sort of accountability software or arrangement."

"Our current practice is to discourage staff from choosing their leaders as their accountability partners as we prefer that to be close friends or others they feel comfortable with," the statement reads.
"To provide some context, the fact is that among many Christians, the use of internet filtering or accountability software is often considered a good thing, with accountability software avoiding some of the clunky features of filtering software. We are open to better ways to accomplish safeguards our staff members desire and we’re hoping to find/implement such technologies."

Covenant Eyes was founded in 2000 and reports to have helped over 1.5 million users in their quests for "victory over porn." The current software makes it nearly impossible for users to exploit loopholes and watch pornography undetected.

Former two-time NBA champion Lamar Odom, also known for his appearances on E!'s "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," revealed he was using Covenant Eyes to help him battle his pornography addiction.

In a video filmed by the Michigan-based company, the 40-year-old former NBA Sixth Man of the Year and "Dancing with the Stars" contestant revealed that decades of porn addiction hurt relationships and brought him great pain.

After being contacted by WIRED, Google suspended the Covenant Eyes and Accountable2You apps from the Google Play store.

“Google Play permits the use of the Accessibility API for a wide range of applications,” Google spokesperson Danielle Cohen said in a statement to WIRED. “However, only services that are designed to help people with disabilities access their device or otherwise overcome challenges stemming from their disabilities are eligible to declare that they are accessibility tools.”

Both apps are still available to download in the Apple Store. 

Ben Lawrence, the CEO of Accoutnable2You, pushed back against the Google Play Store removal.

"To function in our mission of providing accountability for the device owner, we use the AccessibilityServices API as allowed for by Google," Lawrence said in a statement. "The AccessibilityServices API can be used for many different things aside from helping people with disabilities. We have been listed on the Play Store for many years and have fully complied with all requirements and met all the regulations regarding Google’s User Data policies, including their upcoming policy changes."

As an organization, Covenant Eyes offers more than just its accountability software. The organization regularly holds conferences, webinars and other events to spread awareness and advise churches and pastors on how they can help their congregants dealing with porn addiction.  

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