Of all the lurid details we heard during the Josh Duggar trial, before he was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for downloading and possessing illicit images of child sexual abuse, one of the most surprising involved a spying app called Covenant Eyes that had been installed on his computer.
The Christian accountability program was supposed to alert certain designated people if you were looking at anything online that you shouldn’t have been. It’s primarily known as a tool used by pastors to keep tabs on gay members who think they’re “struggling” with same-sex attraction and need a babysitter to make sure they’re not looking at gay videos on adult sites.
Duggar had the program installed on his work computer, personal computer, and phone so his wife could check that he wasn’t looking at any sort of pornography. During his trial, however, we learned that Duggar found a workaround: He installed a Linux partition that basically allowed him to use his computer in a way that wasn’t seen by Covenant Eyes. The app didn’t catch any of the illegal things he did.
None of that has stopped churches from using the software, though. It’s been downloaded over 100,000 times, according to WIRED, and it’s being used to monitor a lot more than adult content. In fact, at one evangelical church, Gracepoint Church in California, the pastors use it in a cult-like way to monitor everything their leaders and certain members are doing online.
That includes doing Google searches concerning any religious doubts.
In Hao-Wei Lin’s case, that included his Amazon purchases, articles he read, and even which friends’ accounts he looked at on Instagram. The trouble is, according to Hao-Wei Lin, providing his church leader with a ledger of everything he did online meant [the pastor] could always find something to ask him about, and the way Covenant Eyes flagged content didn’t help. For example, in Covenant Eyes reports that Hao-Wei Lin shared with WIRED, his online psychiatry textbook was rated “Highly Mature,” the most severe category of content reserved for “anonymizers, nudity, erotica, and pornography.” The same was true of anything Hao-Wei Lin felt was “remotely gay,” like his Statigr.am searches.
… when [WIRED] set up a test account and navigated to the US Centers for Disease Control’s website for LGBTQ youth resources, the phone we designated as our accountability partner was immediately texted and emailed a “questionable activity report” indicating that our test phone had visited a “Highly Questionable” website.
“It’s really not about pornography,” says Brit, a former user of Accountable2You who asked to only be identified by her first name, due to privacy concerns. “It’s about making you conform to what your pastor wants.” Brit says she was asked to install the app by her parents after she was caught looking at pornography and that her mother and her pastor were both her designated accountability partners. “I remember I had to sit down and have a conversation with him [her pastor] after I Wikipedia’d an article about atheism,” she says. “I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have some kind of right to read what I want to read.”
The app alerted her pastor because she dared to read up on atheism. The same church has also been accused of using the app to make sure members aren’t “listening to K-pop or watching too much ESPN.”
It’s one thing if you believe you have a problem and you want someone else to hold you accountable. This app can work in those situations and it’s not a unique premise at all, no different than when someone struggling with alcohol addiction calls up a partner when he feels an urge to drink.
But these churches are effectively criminalizing thought within their ranks. It’s not illegal, but it’s arguably unethical. It’s a reminder that these religious organizations aren’t set up to handle critical thought that challenges their beliefs. They already treat homosexuality as a sin, but even questioning their faith in private—something that became even more popular once internet access became widely available decades ago—is seen as a problem that must be resolved.
If your church believes you need an accountability partner because you’re curious about atheism, or sex, or anything else, you’re in danger. It’s no surprise Gracepoint used to have an FAQ page that asked the question, “Is Gracepoint a cult?” It’s also no surprise that this church has been accused of spiritual abuse by several former members. The fact that they’re spying on members with Covenant Eyes is just a symptom of a much larger disease.
Gracepoint insists they’re not doing anything wrong because there’s a voluntary component to it (since members get to pick their accountability partners). But the fact that they require their adult leaders to be babysat because they might use the internet like pretty much everyone else tells you just how controlling and harmful a Christian environment like this can be.