Welcome to the age of digital vigilante journalism

Last week marked the beginning of the age of digital vigilante justice. For the first time, a public figure was forced to resign after journalists obtained geolocation data from his phone and outed him as a homosexual.

The subject of the investigation was a Catholic priest. The enforcers were the co-editors of a new Catholic news site, The Pillar.

There are a number of angles to this story. It may seem like another chapter in the drama of Catholic in-fighting, but it’s not just that. American political life will never be the same.

This is what we know so far.

J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon, both canon lawyers and both experienced journalists specialising in Catholic affairs, launched The Pillar earlier this year on Substack. They promised tough investigative reporting.

Somehow – how is a bit murky – they obtained data from the mobile phone of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the General Secretary to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Burrill is by no means a household name even in Catholic circles, but his job was an influential and important one.

The source of the data, they said, was the gay hook-up app Grindr. Amongst other things, it logs users’ locations. From the data, they inferred that between 2018 and 2020 Burrill had often visited places which most Catholics would find scandalous. There was no evidence, however, that Burrill had broken any laws or had any contact with minors.

Flynn and Condon took their story to the USCCB and Burrill resigned before they published it on July 21. Two canon lawyers had trashed his reputation. Perhaps Canon 220 – “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy” – had been redacted in their edition of the Code of Canon Law.  

That news was dramatic enough, but Flynn and Condon had yet another ace up their sleeve. On July 24, they revealed that they had used mobile phone data to track the activities of priests in the archdiocese of Newark. Their carefully phrased article suggested that 10 priests were using homosexual and heterosexual hook-up apps.

The journalists said that “Without compelling public interest regarding individual priests serving in archdiocesan ministries, The Pillar did not undertake to de-anonymize data about parish rectory app usage.”

“Without compelling public interest”: it was an unsubtle warning from the editors that their fingers are on the detonator of a public relations bomb. Newark is particularly vulnerable to accusations of clerical sexual misconduct, as its disgraced former archbishop was Ted McCarrick, a homosexual who seems to have been part of a gay network. With that in mind, the phrase “without compelling public interest” seems more like an extortionist’s note than journalism.

Journalistic ethics

Is all this a violation of journalistic ethics? As scientists are wont to say about their bailiwick, ethics is lagging behind technology. But the consensus of American journalists seems to be that their data-driven journalism was reekingly wrong.

“I worry very much about creating — through some of these precedents — a permissibility of journalists to basically publish whatever they can get their hands on,” Edward Wasserman, media ethics professor at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, told the Washington Post.

Normally journalists investigating a scandal seek reports from credible eyewitnesses. In this case, Flynn and Condon did not cite eyewitnesses. Their allegations are completely based on geolocation data gleaned from Grindr, anonymised, sold to a data broker, and analysed by the journalists. Their challenge was linking it to Burrill’s phone – which turned out to be a snap.

But what if Burrill’s phone was in someone else’s pocket? What if the algorithm was wrong? Flynn and Condon have gambled that the algorithm is right. Are good odds sufficient justification enough to destroy a man?

Reputable media do not meddle in personal lives. The New York Times, for example, has a code of ethics which states “We do not inquire pointlessly into someone’s personal life.” And Flynn himself stated in another story: “I don’t like to write gossip. I don’t want to report salacious things for the sake of clicks.”

So why the Burrill revelations, then?

Let’s go to The Pillar’s mission statement. It includes this principle: “We're independent of any ecclesial agenda but the holiness of the Church and its members.” The Pillar, it seems, has a God-given mandate to uproot sin without regard to professional ethics.

This is vigilante stuff, not investigative journalism. Vigilantes don’t have milquetoast scruples about ends justifying means. As Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot.”

A dark future for privacy

With the rapid advance of technology and social media, personal privacy is being eroded quickly. Once upon a time, public figures only needed to worry about paparazzi and phone taps. But nowadays, a bad joke posted on Twitter a decade ago can ruin a career. Genetic data is partially protected but it’s possible to identify people from anonymised data. Police can track criminals through publicly available genealogy websites. China is using facial-recognition technology to track dissidents.

Two years ago the New York Times published an in-depth look at how smartphones have killed privacy. Even authors were alarmed. “To anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book. They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor,” they wrote.

The Times was even able to track and identify rioters who invaded the Capitol Building in January with smartphone data.  

"While there were no names or phone numbers in the data, we were once again able to connect dozens of devices to their owners, tying anonymous locations back to names, home addresses, social networks and phone numbers of people in attendance. In one instance, three members of a single family were tracked in the data."

But at least it had the decency only to publish the names of people who gave their permission.

This isn't all The Pillar's fault, of course. Our society has made a Faustian bargain with technology. There’s an app for everything, even for 24/7 vigilante surveillance. As Oregon Senator Ron Wyden commented:

"Experts have warned for years that data collected by advertising companies from Americans' phones could be used to track them and reveal the most personal details of their lives. Unfortunately, they were right. Data brokers and advertising companies have lied to the public, assuring them that the information they collected was anonymous. As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus—individuals can be tracked and identified."

What Flynn and Condon have done is add geo-location technology to the toolkit of freelance journalists who set their own ethical boundaries. It’s not just errant priests who are at risk. American politicians must be quaking in their boots. Anyone can track their movements after dark. Secrecy is dead. They’ve done Dirty Harry proud.


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