Catholic churches used to gather location-based cellphone data

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon says he used location-based data from smartphones to target Catholic church attendees with vote advertisements.

Bannon says a message was sent to church-goers from CatholicVote, “…not to go vote for a specific guy, but for all Catholics to go out and do their duty and they’re going to put out a thing to support President Trump.”

The concession came from a now-deleted scene from The Brink, a documentary by Alison Klayman that focuses on Bannon’s efforts to mobilise the far-right during the 2018 midterm elections.

Bannon told Klayman he worked with the conservative group CatholicVote to use location data to target ads to people who had recently been to Catholic churches in Dubuque, Iowa.

“If your phone’s ever been in a Catholic church, it’s amazing, they got this data,” Bannon reportedly said. “Literally, they can tell who’s been in a Catholic church and how frequently. And they got it triaged.”

Bannon told Klayman he got the data from phone companies “and the data guys sell it.”

Collecting data in this way is called geofencing. Although it is supposedly anonymised, privacy advocates say geofencing and other ways that companies collect and sell cell-phone location data have the potential to reveal personal information about individual phone users.

“This is terribly disturbing. This is like a total infringement on everybody,” a Franciscan sister and longtime social justice activist in Dubuque says.

“I have not used it to target religious groups specifically, and I will say that, for me, morally that seems like a step too far,” an advertising executive from a firm that regularly uses geofencing.

“But it doesn’t surprise me.”

Bannon, who is a Catholic, has worked to shift the political landscape inside and outside the church.

His aim is to attract Catholics to his brand of right-wing populism and link in with prominent Catholics who oppose the relatively progressive reign of Pope Francis.

Conservative activists working to attract Catholic votes is nothing new, says John Gehring.

About 20 years ago, Gehring says they would find ways to get parish directories.

“The political strategy to reach Catholics is clearly more high-tech now, but the goal of selling the Republican brand and the willingness to stretch ethical boundaries to do that is the same today.”


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