2016 was the worst year of Katie’s life. Just after New Year’s Day, her 24-year-old son went missing. Seven weeks later, police recovered his body from the river that snakes through her town. For months, to get to work, Katie had to drive across the bridge near where his body was found. To grieve, she turned to prayer apps: first, the now-defunct Instapray, and then to Pray.com.
Thanks to Pray.com, Katie found solace in a community of what she calls "prayer warriors" — thousands of people who share their deepest fears and hopes in a public Facebookesque feed of prayers and prayer requests. Katie posted prayers for her son, for her former husband, who died by suicide in 2008, and for her youngest child, who struggles with addiction. (All app users' names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
As Katie laid out her spiritual anguish, Pray.com was data mining it, matching her actions in the app to details about her that it purchased from data brokers.
As Katie laid out her spiritual anguish, Pray.com was data mining it.
Like many app users daunted by inscrutable privacy policies, Katie had not read Pray.com’s. She was troubled to learn that the app shares data about her with other companies and flummoxed by its practice of supplementing said information with additional data from data brokers. “I just have no idea why they would need that,” she said.
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.
Pray.com declined to say which data brokers it has purchased data from and which third parties it has shared data with. Spokesperson Pat Shortridge said that Pray.com “does not share users’ public, private, or anonymous prayers and specific content consumption with third parties for commercial purposes.”
However, 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.”
Pray.com didn’t respond to questions about which data it shares with Facebook or how Facebook uses that information. Shortridge said the company “is not in the business of renting or selling data.” Representatives from Facebook said the company is investigating the situation.
“Concealing that information would be a disgusting indication that they prioritize profits over faith.”
Some lawmakers expressed concern about the company’s practices. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, “This investigation makes even more clear the need for Congress to pass comprehensive consumer privacy laws to ensure that the public is in control of their most intimate personal information — not distant corporations and tech giants.” Sen. Ron Wyden said that companies “have a duty to explain if and how their users’ personal prayers are being used by marketers,” and “concealing that information would be a disgusting indication that they prioritize profits over faith.”
It is common for free apps to profit from sharing their users’ data and to be vague about exactly how and with whom they share it, but users feel like Pray.com’s data practices are at odds with the deeply personal nature of prayer itself. Jenny, a recent college graduate who prayed about the infidelity of a romantic partner in the app, said “there is an expectation of privacy” among Christians sharing prayers. Sarah, a mother of three who shared prayers about eviction and divorce, said she would consider it “exploitative,” “manipulative,” and “predatory” if the company used people’s prayers to sell them products.
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.”
“The church as we know it will be gone in 20 years.”
Since then, technologists and investors have matched Boyle’s enthusiasm. 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.”
For some religious scholars, the move to digital — and the data profiteering that could come along with it — is an inevitable part of the church's reinvention. COVID-19 has simply accelerated already shifting norms and practices around Christian worship. Rev. Brian Heron, a Presbyterian minister who oversees 96 churches across the Pacific Northwest, said he’s watched attendance collapse. “The church as we know it will be gone in 20 years,” he said.
As part of auditing Pray.com, privacy researcher Edwards navigated to a podcast episode within the app titled “Q&A: Dating, Porn, Sex, & Divorce.” He found that the app shared details of what content he viewed with Facebook and two other companies, LeadsRX and Branch.io. These are attribution vendors — companies that figure out which ads lead people to make purchases. Sharing Edwards’ visit to that particular podcast could enable Pray.com to later track whether his engagement with the episode led him to consume other content or buy something. Pray.com did not dispute that it sends data about users’ engagement with specific content to attribution vendors.
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.
Pray.com’s business model could evolve just as drastically. Today, Pray.com (like Hallow and Glorify) is free and relies on purchases of “premium” subscriptions ($59.99, billed annually) for revenue. But “until these prayer apps have been around for a few years,” Edwards said, “their 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.
“Prayer is more traditionally a deeply private experience.”
Bible Gateway and News Corporation declined to list which types of preferences, opinions, and emotions NewsIQ captures about its users, noting that any personal data collected by Bible Gateway "is permissioned and used in compliance with applicable data privacy laws.”
While selling advertising space and user data represents one possible future for Pray, Hallow, and Glorify, another fate is that of Instapray, the defunct app Katie first used. 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.
Like Pray.com, Hallow and Glorify have privacy policies that allow them to share user data with business partners for the purposes of targeted advertising and that give them “sole discretion” about when to disclose user information to governments, law enforcement officials, or other “private parties.” But representatives from Hallow and Glorify were quick to clarify that the companies have not shared user information for marketing purposes or with government entities or private parties, even though their policies allow it. Still, Hallow, Glorify, and Pray.com’s policies all categorize their users’ personal information as a business asset — perhaps one of their most valuable.
“Faith is inherently social,” wrote Andreessen Horowitz general partner Connie Chan in a 2021 blog post announcing the fund’s investment in Glorify where she applauded how the app “borrows concepts like ‘streaks’ from social and workout apps.” But experts worry that the profit motive underlying engagement tactics ripped right from social media’s playbook can distort the religious experience — and make religious apps susceptible to the problems that plague social media platforms, including filter bubbles, political division, and privacy violations.
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.
“To me, Christianity really isn’t about marketing or advertising or profit.”
The incentive to collect as much data as possible also makes apps vulnerable to hacks and security breaches, which have already affected Pray.com. 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.
Users of the apps say they do worry somewhat about their privacy. Katie became nervous about others learning her identity soon after she began using the app, and asked app moderators to remove her last name from her profile. (They obliged.) But they also had a simpler concern: Companies shouldn’t capitalize on Christianity. Tom, a Quaker pastor and Bible Gateway user, said, “to me, Christianity really isn’t about marketing or advertising or profit.” Marcus, a Bible Gateway user who teaches technology to high school students, said he doesn’t “want to be ‘the product’ for any company.” Jenny said she has used Pray.com less lately because its new features feel too commodified. She said simply: “Prayer should be free.” ●
This story has been updated to clarify comment from Pray.com.