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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

What It's Like to Live in a Surveillance State - The New York Times - 0 views

  • when it comes to indigenous Uighurs in the vast western region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has updated its old totalitarian methods with cutting-edge technology
  • The Qing Empire conquered Xinjiang in the 18th century. The territory then slipped from Beijing’s control, until the Communists reoccupied it with Soviet help in 1949. Today, several Central Asian peoples, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrghyz, make up about half of the region’s population; the remainder are Han and Hui, who arrived from eastern China starting in the mid-20th century
  • the C.C.P. has since subjected the entire Uighur population of some 11 million to arbitrary arrest, draconian surveillance or systemic discrimination. Uighurs are culturally Muslim, and the government often cites the threat of foreign Islamist ideology to justify its security policies
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  • A law now bans face coverings — but also “abnormal” beards. A Uighur village party chief was demoted for not smoking, on grounds that this failing displayed an insufficient “commitment to secularization.” Officials in the city of Kashgar, in southwest Xinjiang, recently jailed several prominent Uighur businessmen for not praying enough at a funeral — a sign of “extremism,” they claimed.
  • Uighurs’ DNA is collected during state-run medical checkups. Local authorities now install a GPS tracking system in all vehicles. Government spy apps must be loaded on mobile phones. All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content. When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code
  • The C.C.P., once quite liberal in its approach to diversity, seems to be redefining Chinese identity in the image of the majority Han — its version, perhaps, of the nativism that appears to be sweeping other parts of the world. With ethnic difference itself now defined as a threat to the Chinese state, local leaders like Mr. Chen feel empowered to target Uighurs and their culture wholesale
  • There’s an old Chinese joke about Uighurs being the Silk Road’s consummate entrepreneurs: When the first Chinese astronaut steps off his spaceship onto the moon, he will find a Uighur already there selling lamb kebabs. And so even as Mr. Chen cracks down in Xinjiang, the Chinese government touts the region as the gateway for its much-vaunted “one belt, one road” initiative, Mr. Xi’s signature foreign policy project. The grand idea combines a plan to spend billions of dollars in development loans and transport investment across Eurasia with a strategic bid to establish China’s diplomatic primacy in Asia.
  • How does the party think that directives banning fasting during Ramadan in Xinjiang, requiring Uighur shops to sell alcohol and prohibiting Muslim parents from giving their children Islamic names will go over with governments and peoples from Pakistan to Turkey? The Chinese government may be calculating that money can buy these states’ quiet acceptance. But the thousands of Uighur refugees in Turkey and Syriaalready complicate China’s diplomacy.
Ed Webb

AP Exclusive: Digital police state shackles Chinese minority - 0 views

  • thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of people, rights groups and academics estimate, who have been spirited without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely traveling or studying abroad. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uighurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism
  • Uighur activists and international human rights groups argue that repressive measures are playing into the hands of the likes of al-Qaida, which has put out Uighur-language recruiting videos condemning Chinese oppression. “So much hate and desire for revenge are building up,” said Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur activist in Canada. “How does terrorism spread? When people have nowhere to run.”
  • While forced indoctrination has been reported throughout Xinjiang, its reach has been felt far beyond China’s borders. In April, calls began trickling into a Uighur teacher’s academy in Egypt, vague but insistent. Uighur parents from a few towns were pleading with their sons and daughters to return to China, but they wouldn’t say why. “The parents kept calling, crying on the phone,” the teacher said. Chinese authorities had extended the scope of the program to Uighur students abroad. And Egypt, once a sanctuary for Uighurs to study Islam, began deporting scores of Uighurs to China.
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  • Shopkeepers in the thronging bazaar don mandatory armored vests and helmets to sell hand-pulled noodles, tailored suits and baby clothes.
  • police depots with flashing lights and foot patrols be built every 500 meters (yards)— a total of 1,130, according to the Hotan government. The AP saw cavalcades of more than 40 armored vehicles including full personnel carriers rumble down city boulevards. Police checkpoints on every other block stop cars to check identification and smartphones for religious content
  • Southern Xinjiang, the vast desert basin from where many of the students came, is one of the most heavily policed places on earth.
  • Xinjiang is now hiring 40 times more police per capita than populous Guangdong Province
  • To enter the Hotan bazaar, shoppers first pass through metal detectors and then place their national identification cards on a reader while having their face scanned. The facial scanner is made by China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), a state-owned defense contractor that has spearheaded China’s fast-growing field of predictive policing with Xinjiang as its test bed. The AP found 27 CETC bids for Xinjiang government contracts, including one soliciting a facial recognition system for facilities and centers in Hotan Prefecture
  • The government’s tracking efforts have extended to vehicles, genes, and even voices. In February, authorities in Xinjiang’s Bayingol prefecture, which includes Korla, required every car to install GPS trackers for real-time monitoring. And since late last year, Xinjiang authorities have required health checks to collect the population’s DNA samples. In May, a regional police official told the AP that Xinjiang had purchased $8.7 million in DNA scanners — enough to analyze several million samples a year.
  • When a Uighur businessman from Kashgar completed a six-month journey to flee China and landed in the United States with his family in January, he was initially ecstatic. He tried calling home, something he hadn’t done in months to spare his family unwanted police questioning. His mother told him his four brothers and his father were in prison because he fled China. She was spared only because she was frail
  • This month, Xinjiang announced it would require every government employee in the region to move into a Uighur home for a week to teach families about ideology and avoiding extremism.
  • AP reporters were later detained by police, interrogated for 11 hours, and accused of “illegal reporting” in the area without seeking prior permission from the Korla government. “The subjects you’re writing about do not promote positive energy,” a local propaganda official explained. Five villagers said they knew authorities had taken away the young student; one said he was definitely alive, the others weren’t sure. When asked, local police denied he existed at all.
Ed Webb

Muslim parents 'fear being reported for talking about terrorism': UK watchdog | Middle ... - 0 views

  • The UK government's Prevent counter-extremism strategy is stifling freedom of expression and "choking off" conversations about terrorism and related issues between teachers and students and some Muslim parents and their children, the country's terrorism legislation watchdog has warned.
  • some Muslim parents were fearful of having conversations about terrorism with their children because of concerns that their families could be referred to Prevent by “half-trained” teachers
  • teachers felt vulnerable, citing the case of a teacher in northern England who said she was referred to Prevent and suspended after telling a colleague that she was going to a fundraising dinner for Syria
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  • Other teachers had complained that the Prevent duty had inhibited classroom discussions about issues of terrorism and extremism, Anderson said.One teacher had told him how she would use discussion about the Islamic State (IS) group to encourage a debate about the use of violence, about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and peaceful political activism, and whether IS was the same as the IRA.“The toxic views would come out and they would hopefully either be blunted or neutralised, or [the students] at least would be given something to think about,” Anderson said. “She said if that happens now you choke off the discussion because teachers are watching their backs and don’t want to be reported.”
  • Muslim communities had not been properly consulted or involved as the strategy had evolved under the current Conservative government.
  • The UK had not made it illegal to be a Communist during the Cold War, but the current proposals were “not too far away from that”.
  • Prevent could infringe on European human rights laws guaranteeing freedom of religious expression and cited the case of a Muslim boy who wanted a place to pray at his secondary school.“There was a faith room in school but the godless Christians who made up most of the school's population were not very interested in using it. When asked if they could use it for Muslim prayers a panic ensued and various contradictory answers were given and eventually the room was locked as the most effective answer.”
Ed Webb

Muslims sue FBI for alleged First Amendment violation | 89.3 KPCC - 0 views

  • “I feel that at times I am being followed,” he said. “I definitely feel that all my phone calls are tapped. I feel that my emails are filtered and tapped. I feel like I can’t have a loving conversation with my wife. “My wife and I both feel that way. We feel like we can’t even keep the phone in the room on and have a loving conversation without assuming the FBI is monitoring that conversation. I feel like there’s probably FBI in this room right now.”
    • Ed Webb
       
      Having lived in a surveillance society, I relate to this feeling very well. It is pernicious. The invasion by the state into private spaces is deeply corrosive of human dignity.
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