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Ed Webb

Nothing Sacred: These Apps Reserve The Right To Sell Your Prayers - 0 views

  • Pray.com collects data about its users in multiple ways. According to its privacy policy, the company records detailed information about users, including their physical location, the links they click on, and the text of the posts they make. Then, it supplements that information with data from “third-parties such as data analytics providers and data brokers,” which can include “your gender, age, religious affiliation, ethnicity, marital status, household size and income, political party affiliation and interests... geographic location, and Personal Information.” The policy also says Pray.com shares users’ personal information, including identifiers that link their activity to specific devices, with “third parties” for “commercial purposes.”
  • Prior to an inquiry from BuzzFeed News, the policy made no mention of the company purchasing files about its users from data brokers. Pray.com added the language on Dec. 22, 2021, following the inquiry.
  • an audit of Pray.com by privacy researcher Zach Edwards showed that the app shares granular data about the content its users consume with several other companies, including Facebook. According to Edwards, this means users could be targeted with ads on Facebook based on the content they engage with on Pray.com — including content modules with titles like “Better Marriage,” “Abundant Finance,” and “Releasing Anger.”
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  • As people have turned to religious apps as a replacement for in-person church services amid COVID-19, Silicon Valley investors have seized on them as an opportunity to commercialize a set of conversations that have historically been among the most private: those with God.
  • Venture capitalist Katherine Boyle put it bluntly in a 2020 Washington Post op-ed: “A holy trinity is in place: isolated people hungry for attachment, religions desperate for growth in an online world, and technology investors searching for the consumer niches yet to digitize.”
  • A new Catholic app called Hallow, which offers devotional content with titles like “Overcoming Hopelessness,” announced in November that it had closed a $40 million Series B fundraising round. In December, a similar app called Glorify also raised $40 million. These apps, which also collect extensive information about their users, are backed by some of Silicon Valley’s best-known prospectors: Greylock Partners (Pray.com), Andreessen Horowitz (Glorify), and Peter Thiel (Hallow). Greylock, Andreessen, and Thiel are also all known for their investments in Facebook, which recently ramped up its own prayer offerings by rolling out a new tool called “prayer posts.”
  • Adults aren't the only ones caught up in Pray.com's dragnet. Some of the profiles on Pray.com appear to represent underage users. The app features a “Kids Stories” section, and BuzzFeed News found numerous Pray.com profiles for younger teens. One profile that claimed to be a 12-year-old expressed suicidal thoughts in a prayer post that was visible to anyone in a nearly 100,000-user group. In response to questions about underage users on the app, including the 12-year-old user, Shortridge confirmed that Pray.com “does not knowingly allow anyone under 16 to sign-up” for the app, but wrote that “age gating would not be relevant for our site.” The account belonging to the 12-year-old was removed from the platform after BuzzFeed News provided screenshots of it to Pray.com.
  • In 2018, Pray.com founder Steve Gatena portrayed Pray.com in intimate terms: “While other social networks might serve as a public place for your professional identity or your social identity, prayer is more traditionally a deeply private experience.” But 10 million downloads after its launch, much of the app is public — Katie’s, Sarah’s, and Jenny’s prayers and interactions with other users are visible to anyone who joins their nearly 100,000-person public group.
  • users should anticipate that at any moment, online advertising could be easily integrated into these websites, and the data they currently are collecting could be used to optimize new advertising systems
  • Bible Gateway, one of the largest devotional apps on the market, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, has been making money by sharing its users’ information for years. It began, like Pray.com, as both a free and ad-free experience, but eventually introduced targeted ads to cover its costs. Since 2017, the app has fed data about the nearly 8 million people who have downloaded its app into an ad targeting system called NewsIQ, which infers interests about users based on their behavior across News Corporation apps and websites. NewsIQ claims it can “capture the preferences, opinions and emotions” of users for advertisers to exploit.
  • Founded without a business model, Instapray quickly found traction with users and investment from Peter Thiel. But it was then sold — along with its users’ data — to Salem Media Group, a conservative-aligned conglomerate of talk radio stations and political websites. After the acquisition, Salem shut Instapray down. It did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about how it uses Instapray users’ data.
  • Religion scholars noted that the most spiritually important conversations may not always be the most commercially viable ones, and that companies’ desire to capture users’ attention might narrow the themes explored in their devotional practice. Privacy experts worried the apps could be manipulated by interest groups like anti-vaccine activists and political parties. Instapray, which initially marketed itself to religious political constituencies, later faced criticism for hosting “political statements disguised as prayer.” At least one government has taken an interest in prayer app data, too — the US military bought extensive location data mined from Muslim prayer apps back in 2020 for use in special forces operations.
  • In 2020, researchers at the website VPNMentor.com discovered that Pray.com was storing millions of users’ personal information, including home addresses, where they attend church, and the contents of their contact lists, in publicly accessible cloud storage “buckets.” Among the records exposed were photos of underage users, which the researchers said were likely uploaded without parents’ permission.
Ed Webb

Calls in Egypt for censored social media after arrests of TikTok star, belly dancer - R... - 0 views

  • Egyptian lawmakers have called for stricter surveillance of women on video sharing apps after the arrests of a popular social media influencer and a well-known belly dancer on charges of debauchery and inciting immorality.
  • Instagram and TikTok influencer Haneen Hossam, 20, is under 15 days detention for a post encouraging women to broadcast videos in exchange for money, while dancer Sama el-Masry faces 15 days detention for posting “indecent” photos and videos.
  • “Because of a lack of surveillance some people are exploiting these apps in a manner that violates public morals and Egypt’s customs and traditions,”
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  • In 2018 Egypt adopted a cyber crime law that grants the government full authority to censor the internet and exercise communication surveillance. A media regulation law also allows authorities to block individual social media accounts.
  • Several women in Egypt have previously been accused of “inciting debauchery” by challenging the country’s conservative social norms, including actress Rania Youssef after critics took against her choice of dress for the Cairo Film Festival in 2018.
  • Hossam denied any wrongdoing but Cairo University - where she is studying archaeology - said it would enforce maximum penalties against her which could include expulsion.
  • Egyptian women’s rights campaigner Ghadeer Ahmed blamed the arrests on rising social pressures on women and “corrupt laws”. “[These laws] condemn people for their behaviour that may not conform to imagined social standards for how to be a ‘good citizen’ and a respectful woman,” she wrote in a Tweet.
Ed Webb

UAE now Requires Licenses for 'Social Media Influencers' - 0 views

  •   The United Arab Emirates says it will now require anyone conducting "commercial activities" through social media to register for a government-issued license.
  • new rules announced Tuesday target so-called "social media influencers,"
  • help ensure "that media material respects the religious, cultural and social values of the UAE,"
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  • The UAE, while liberal in many regards compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors, has strict laws governing expression. Journalists working in the country require government-issued press cards. People also have been jailed for their comments online.
Ed Webb

Iran's Rosh Hashana Twitter diplomacy stirs amazement, disbelief | The Back Channel - 0 views

  • Iran’s new Foreign Minister Javad Zarif joined President Hassan Rouhani in tweeting “Happy Rosh Hashanah” greetings Thursday, on the occasion of the Jewish new year’s holiday, setting off a new wave of amazement, and some disbelief, in both the social media and policy universes.
  • The rare and unusually direct Twitter diplomacy between Iranian leaders and western policy observers “will go down in history,” one Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, expressing the wider sense of amazement heard from many veteran Iran watchers at the display of tolerance and public diplomacy initiative coming from Tehran. The welcome change in atmospherics has added to hopes for a diplomatic opening created by Rouhani’s election. But it must be accompanied by substantive progress in nuclear negotiations to lead to a broader easing of ties, western analysts and officials said.
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