The other day I was having dinner with an Anglican priest when the topic of Internet privacy came up. As we discussed how websites often allow third-parties to track their visitors, he wondered whether his own church let companies such as Facebook or Google know who visits the site by allowing them to place bits of tracking data called cookies on their computers and phones.
Traditionally, of course, clergy try to maintain anonymity for parishioners who come to them on a one to one basis. I thought of the 1953 Hitchcock film “I Confess” with Montgomery Clift in which a Catholic priest holds his silence even after he takes confession from a man who tells him that he committed a murder.
The priest asked if I might check his website and see if it contained third-party trackers. So I pointed the Disconnect.me browser at his site and found embedded code from ten trackers, about half of which are related to Google.
I then checked a series of other religious sites to see if they had embraced the now common practice of allowing third-party tracking. Central Synagogue in Manhattan had eight trackers, including ones from Facebook, Google, and AddThis, a social sharing widget which says it tracks users across more than 14 million websites. The website of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America had seven trackers.
Data tracking, it turns out, is a pantheistic, borderless phenomenon. The webpage for the Jama Masjid mosque a 17th century shrine in Delhi, India, showed 14 trackers. The holiest shrine in Islam, the Masjim al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, had four trackers, including one from Google.
The Dalai Lama’s website, which gives India as its contact address, contained a tracker for AddThis. Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., had just two trackers, one from Google and the other from Adobe.
Which is the worst offender? One would think it would be the Mormons, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has underwritten a global effort to harvest genealogical history for every race and creed, with 3 billion names stored at FamilySearch.org. Yet Disconnect.me shows a mere nine trackers on the Church’s main web portal. Nope, the worst offender is the Church of Scientology, which had 47 or 48 trackers (the number differed over two days), the most of the religious sites I checked.
“It does seem invasive of personal privacy,” said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary. “I am absolutely certain that very few religious leaders know their sites have this form of tracking… nor do most small secular businesses. They barely comprehend the basics and haven’t even considered tracking technology or the ethical implications of these features with their members.”
Scott Allan, chief marketing officer at AddThis, says that its cookies only gather data that is non-personally identifiable. “We present data from each site back to the publisher to help them understand the content engagement trends on their site, such as how many times an article was shared. They’re not designed to understand religious affiliation.”
AddThis recently ruffled some feathers however when it disclosed an experiment it had run from February to mid-July by using a new tracking technique called “canvas fingerprinting” as an alternative to placing cookies, which some users block or frequently erase. “The test was completed, the code has been disabled, and this data was never used for personalization or targeted advertising,” wrote AddThis Vice President Rich LaBarca in a company blog this week. “Moving forward, we’re going to change the way we run tests, and we’ll provide you with more information about the tests before we activate them.”
I did find one Roman church with a few followers which did not allow any outside parties to put trackers on their website. That site is Vatican.va.