The photo chosen to illustrate an article published today by Breitbart — based on another source, The Pillar — about possible blackmail of the Vatican by China.
The authors of the source article (in The Pillar, see below) claim cell phone data they have obtained shows that, on several occasions in 2018, personal cell phones accessed “hook-up apps” from “non-public areas” inside Vatican City.
This fact, the authors argue, could have been known by the Chinese government, and used to blackmail the Vatican, perhaps into signing the 2018 China-Holy See agreement on matters including the appointment of Catholic bishops in that country.
The editors of the Breitbart article, which draws on The Pillar article, chose to illustrate their article with this photo above. It shows a bishop using his cell phone during a working session inside a Vatican meeting hall
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“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant… holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied power. –2 Timothy 3:1–5
“And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” —Matthew 24:12
“Blackmail is an act of coercion using the threat of revealing or publicizing either substantially true or false information about a person or people unless certain demands are met. It is often damaging information, and may be revealed to family members or associates rather than to the general public. It may involve using threats of physical, mental or emotional harm… It is also used, sometimes by state agencies, to exert influence; this was a common Soviet practice, so much so that the term “kompromat“, transliterated from Russian, is often used for compromising material used to exert control. Blackmail may also be considered a form of extortion.” —Definition of blackmail
Letter #73, 2021, Wednesday, July 28: Blackmail
This is a story about blackmail.
Blackmail: “An act of coercion using the threat of revealing… information… unless certain demands are met.”
I received this from a reader this morning:
“Fyi, see below. I am not sure of its accuracy but it sure does provide some plausible answers to the Vatican/China arrangement Report: ‘Extensive’ Gay Hookup App Usage Compromises Vatican Security (breitbart.com)
I went to the link.
I found an article, published today, July 28, by Breitbart, which alleges that the Vatican is (possibly) being subjected to blackmail, by China.
But the entire Breitbart article is based on another article, published a few hours earlier, on July 27, by The Pillar, a new Catholic web news agency founded earlier this year by two former editors at Catholic News Agency (owned by EWTN), JD Flynn and Ed Condon, from which both resigned at the very end of 2020 (see brief bios at the bottom of this letter).
The Pillar has now made itself known globally for its focus on the use of “Grindr app data” to reveal possible sexual misconduct by high-ranking Church officials.
First was its story last week about the monsignor at the United States Bishops’ Conference who used the Grindr app, then abruptly resigned as the story was about to break publicly (link).
Second is this story about the use of the Grindr app inside Vatican City (link).
The article points to China as a possible blackmailer of the Vatican.
The article suggests that the Vatican’s September 2018 agreement with China (the contents of which have never been made public) — an agreement which was recently renewed — may have been entered into, or abided by, in part due to threats from China to expose certain activities in the Vatican to global view.
The (possible) blackmail is occurring, perhaps (the article is proposing a hypothesis) because — as The Pillar article reports — a number of people, from “non-public areas” inside Vatican City, in 2018 used their cell phones to connect to “location-based homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps” which facilitate the possibility of sexual encounters between homosexuals and between heterosexuals.
Still, the article does not identify who might have been using such “hook-up apps” — whether Vatican monsignors, or lay workers, or even guests in Vatican City (every October in Rome there are international meetings hosted by the Vatican which are attended by people from all over the world).
So this article is a construction of suppositions based on data that does not seem to conclusively identify a single person — unless such identification has not yet been made public.
Of great interest in this account is a brief narrative of what seems to have been a sort of “journalistic negotiation” between the editors of The Pillar and… the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Here is that part of the story, with my own comments in italics in brackets:
“The Pillar met for more than 90 minutes with both Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, along with Dr. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for communications, to present its findings July 17. The meeting’s discussion was agreed by all parties to be mutually confidential, but the fact of the meeting was not itself off-the-record.”
[Note: A personal meeting between a journalist — the journalist is referred to as “The Pillar,” so it was perhaps one journalist representing The Pillar, but it seems possible that there were two, or more, journalists representing The Pillar — and Cardinal Parolin is not unheard of (I have had such a meeting)… but… but… it is really not common. In fact, a meeting with the Secretary of State, the second man in the Vatican after the Pope, lasting for 90 minutes, is extraordinary. One wonders: What was discussed? But we know what was discussed: the meeting was “to present its (The Pillar‘s) findings.” And so we may imagine a long meeting where the journalist tells Cardinal Parolin that data on the use of the Grindr app by (it seemed certain, though there was no absolute proof) by the American monsignor, and by unidentified individuals inside the Vatican (or were all the individuals unidentified? were some identified?) has been collected… that the information on the use of the app is publicly available, is reliable, and will soon be published. This is what seems to have taken nearly 90 minutes. This was a meeting at which the journalist informed the Vatican’s Secretary of State about the details of a quite delicate investigation. And, one would imagine, the cardinal may have been informed as well that such information might have fallen into the hands of the Chinese government, and so, might have exposed him and the Pope to a type of… geopolitical blackmail. What would Cardinal Parolin have said in reaction to such a presentation?]
“After the meeting’s conclusion, Ruffini requested questions from The Pillar, which he said he would submit to Parolin for a response, and asked for a week for the formulation of a response, to which The Pillar agreed.
[Note: This detail seems unusual. Usually a journalist comes, or journalists come, to a Vatican meeting with questions in hand, already prepared. In this case, the meeting occurs, last 90 minutes, and then the Vatican officials ask for questions to be submitted. So it does appear that there was not a normal interview, with questions during the interview, but rather a long presentation. But then, after such a lengthy presentation, why would there have been any need for the journalist to present any questions? The journalist would have presented everything in the presentation… What question might the journalist have had about his own presentation?]
“On July 18 [Sunday], the day after its meeting with Parolin and Ruffini, The Pillar was informed that a meeting with senior USCCB officials scheduled for Monday, July 19, had been cancelled. The Pillar was asked to submit written questions instead. Overnight between Sunday and Monday, one Catholic media outlet reported the possibility of forthcoming media reports on the issue of app signal data.”
[Note: So here we learn that things were happening that seem to have had the character of… negotiations… on both sides of the Atlantic. A meeting in Rome on July 17 with Parolin; a scheduled meeting in Washington on July 19 with the USCC leadership, canceled on the 18th. (Evidently The Pillar representative was going to fly from Rome to Washington on Sunday, the 18th, or, one representative was in Rome, meeting Parolin, and one was in Washington, about to meet with the USCC leadership.)
Then the leak by another news agency (CNA, the old agency of Flynn and Condon) early on the morning of Monday, July 19. (The report, by Alejandro Bermudez, was released at 3 a.m. on the 19th. The first sentence reads: “The prospect of private parties using national security-style surveillance technology to track the movements and activities of bishops, priests, and other Church personnel is raising concerns about civil liberties, privacy rights and what means are ethical to use in Church reform efforts.”
So it was now in the public domain that The Pillar was (in all likelihood) going to publish its information on the Grinder app use — and that this information had been gathered using what someone thought was “national security-style surveillance technology.” (What?!?)
All this suggests that what was occurring in these meetings may have had some of the characteristics of a negotiation, with one side proposing options regarding the timing of the publication of the information, and the other side, perhaps, requesting that the information not be published immediately, or that it be published only on certain conditions, or that it never be published… But what conditions could any Catholic journalist propose to the Holy See’s Cardinal Secretary of State in such a situation? That if certain actions were taken, the publication would be postponed for a certain time? That if something were done, the material… might not be published at all? We do not know…]
“Late Sunday night [July 18], The Pillar submitted written questions to the USCCB at the conference’s request, and was then asked to extend an initial Monday deadline for response until the following day, which it did.”
[Note: “Late Sunday night”? Once again, this detail is odd. Who at the bishops’ conference was working “late Sunday night” to receive the questions, which evidently were expected to be answered immediately on Monday morning? This has the appearance of a negotiation proceeding toward a deadline. But what could the deadline have been? Was it the time of publication of the material? Well, in fact, we are told that there was a deadline! The bishops asked The Pillar “to extend an initial Monday deadline for a response until the following day.” So, there was a negotiation going on, a negotiation that had a deadline. The leaders of the USCC, it appears, were being asked by The Pillar to answer certain questions before Tuesday, “or else.” And was the “or else”? The “or else,” evidently, was… the publication of the investigation.]
On Tuesday [July 20], USCCB officials offered to schedule a meeting with The Pillar in the afternoon, to which The Pillar agreed. En route to that meeting, The Pillar learned from media reports that USCCB General Secretary Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill had resigned in response to “impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior.”
[Note: The Pillar published its report on Monsignor Burrill’s use of the Grindr app on July 20.]
On July 23, Ruffini told The Pillar that “we have examined the questions you have posed to His Eminence the Secretary of State following on your meeting of 17 July. At this point, also in the light of what happened in recent days, I can say that no statement will be provided.”
[End of the interesting section of The Pillar article of July 27, yesterday.]
Here is the text of the Breitbart article, with some of my own editorial notes in italics in brackets:
Report: ‘Extensive’ Gay Hookup App Usage Compromises Vatican Security (link)
July 28, 2021
By Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D.
Sourced from: (link)
Location-based homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps are widely used within Vatican walls, an investigative report revealed late Tuesday, which can open the Holy See to blackmail and other security risks.
The report by the Pillar, an online Catholic news agency, [Editor’s Note: So, this article is drawn from another article, from another news agency, which we will have to look at to understand where all this came from; see below] raised particular concerns of vulnerability to China, which until 2020 owned the gay hookup app Grindr, one of the services whose use in the Vatican was uncovered.
The Pillar revealed that at least 16 different mobile devices emitted signals from Grindr on at least four days between March and October 2018 within the areas of the Vatican City State not open to the public.
[Note: So, the evidence in this case comes from… 16 different cell phones, on four days, between March and October, in 2018… If we include March and October, we are talking about eight months, that is, 240 days. We are bing told there is evidence on “at least four” of those days that one of 16 different cell phones connected with the Grindr app, which helps to set up dates between people.]
Vatican watchers have been at a loss to explain why the Vatican and Pope Francis himself have been so recalcitrant in not calling out the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and why the Holy See entered into an unfavorable agreement with the CCP in 2018 ceding some decision-making power in the naming of Catholic bishops to Beijing.
“As more and more nations have expressed their concern about the growing evidence of concentration camps and even genocide in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, there has been silence from the one entity that has the whole of suffering humanity at the core of its mission. I refer to the Holy See,” wrote a mystified Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times in 2020.
The Grindr app was “acquired by the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech in 2016 for $93 million,” the Pillar report states, and was only sold to a U.S.-based company in 2020, under pressure from the U.S. government that had flagged Grindr’s Chinese ownership “a national security risk.”
[Note: So, the report is saying the app was owned by a Chinese company until 2020, and that, therefore, the Chinese government could have accessed the data; evidently, the report is indicating that the Chinese government could not access that data since the 2020 sale.]
The report suggests a high degree of probability that Grindr data from its 27 million users would have been shared with the Chinese government during the four years under Chinese ownership, information that could include “user details, private messages exchanged between users, and evidence of sexual liaisons arranged between users.”
[Note: So, again, the report is saying that the data was (possibly) available to the Chinese government for four years, evidently from 2017 to 2020, when the ownership was in the hands of a Chinese company.]
As Breitbart News reported in July 2020, cyber hackers tied to the Chinese government were able to successfully infiltrate the Vatican’s computer networks in the months leading up to a renegotiation of the 2018 accord on the appointment of bishops in China.
[Note: So, we will have to look at this July 2020 report.]
The U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found that hackers had targeted the Vatican and the Holy See’s Study Mission to China, a group of Hong Kong-based Vatican diplomats who have been negotiating the Church’s status in China.
[Note: Again, this same 2020 report.]
In June 2019, the Holy See also changed its longstanding policy of forbidding Catholic priests from joining the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which was set up under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong as a parallel church to the church in Rome.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a vocal critic of the Vatican’s 2018 deal with the CCP over the appointment of bishops, said that deal was not nearly as destructive as the “Pastoral Guidance” issued by the Vatican allowing Catholic clerics to enlist in the CCPA.
In comparison, the pastoral guidance “is more blatantly evil, immoral, because it legitimizes a schismatic Church!” Zen wrote in March 2020.
Since the signing of the original Vatican-China deal in 2018, Catholic in China — especially those belonging to the unofficial “underground Church faithful to Rome — have suffered intensified persecution, according to numerous reports.
“While the Vatican has reached a provisional agreement with China on the issue of episcopal appointments, reports of persecution by the Chinese government persist as underground churches are closed and their priests detained, crosses destroyed, bibles confiscated, and children under 18 forbidden from attending Mass and receiving religious instruction,” the U.S. bishops said in June 2020.
Beijing has come under growing international criticism for the mass imprisonment in “reeducation camps” of more than one million Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where reports of compulsory sterilization, forced abortions, torture, and ethnic cleansing have become frequent.
“The CCP has also been credibly accused of forcibly aborting and sterilizing Uyghur women in the hundreds of thousands, as well as committing infanticide of full-term babies born outside of the family planning limits,” declared human rights champion Reggie Littlejohn in March 2021.
So the source of this Breibart article is a relatively new web news agency called The Pillar, founded earlier this year by two Catholic journalists and canon lawyers who both left Catholic News Agency, which is now part of EWTN, at the end of 2020, six months ago.
Here is that article:
Location-based apps pose security risk for Holy See (link)
July 27, 2021
The use of location-based hookup apps by officials or employees of Church institutions could present serious security problems for the Church, even at the level of the Holy See’s diplomatic and international relations.
The use of such apps within the Vatican City State could be a point of vulnerability in the Holy See’s efforts to defend itself from cyberattacks and other intelligence-gathering exercises in recent years.
Analysis of commercially available signal data obtained by The Pillar, which was legally obtained and whose authenticity The Pillar has confirmed, shows that during a period of 26 weeks in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted serially occurring hookup or dating app data signals from secured areas and buildings of the Vatican ordinarily inaccessible to tourists and pilgrims.
At least 16 mobile devices emitted signals from the hookup app Grindr on at least four days between March to October 2018 within the non-public areas of the Vatican City State, while 16 other devices showed use of other location-based hookup or dating apps, both heterosexual and homosexual, on four or more days in the same time period.
The data set assessed by The Pillar is commercially available and contains location and usage information which users consent to be collected and commercialized as a condition of using the app.
Extensive location-based hookup or dating app usage is evident within the walls of Vatican City, in restricted areas of St. Peter’s Basilica, inside Vatican City government and Holy See’s administration buildings including those used by the Vatican’s diplomatic staff, in residential buildings, and in the Vatican Gardens, both during daytime hours and overnight.
Signals emitted from most of the Vatican’s extraterritorial buildings, which house the offices of several key Curial departments were excluded from analysis because of the proximity of tourists, pilgrims, and the general public to those buildings on a daily basis.
The use of any hookup app within the Vatican City State’s secured areas could pose a security risk for the Holy See. And use of the Grindr app among Vatican residents and officials and within the non-public areas of Vatican City State could present a particular diplomatic security risk for the Holy See in its dealings with China.
The company was launched in California, but acquired by the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech in 2016 for $93 million.
While it was under Chinese ownership, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) deemed the app’s ownership a national security risk, over concerns that data from the app’s some 27 million users could be accessed by the Chinese government and used for blackmail.
The app was sold in 2020 to a company based in the United States for a reported $608 million, at the demand of the U.S. government.
While it was still under Chinese ownership, Grindr allowed third-party engineers access to the personal data of millions of U.S.-based users, including their personal details and HIV status, according to media reports last year.
Because Chinese law requires tech companies to provide access to national intelligence-gathering agencies, app data could be available to the Chinese government. Under intelligence and cybersecurity laws, Kunlun Tech could have been compelled to turn over the data from company servers to the Chinese government for any reason pertaining to “national security,” experts have warned.
That data could include user details, private messages exchanged between users, and evidence of sexual liaisons arranged between users.
Grindr has said that the company has “never disclosed any user data (regardless of citizenship) to the Chinese government nor do we intend to.” But one former Grindr employee told Los Angeles magazine in 2019 that “there’s no world in which the People’s Republic of China is like, ‘Oh, yes, a Chinese billionaire is going to make all this money in the American market with all of this valuable data and not give it to us.’”
China-watchers warn that the country’s government is proactive and formidable in its online-surveillance and intelligence gathering.
“There is a rampant, habitual collection of and interception of internet communication and social media communications. Members of Congress were hacked,” Nina Shea, a former commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told The Pillar last week.
Shea, who also served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, told The Pillar that “since the Vatican doesn’t have a military component, the Chinese are tracking their religious ideas, spying on local Church figures in order to keep them in line. Blackmail is certainly one of the cards they have that they would have no compunction in using.”
“In terms of their engagement with the Vatican, I can understand well how they’ve targeted the Holy See through cyber attacks and everything else, and also the local church in Hong Kong and everything in the run up to the new Vatican-China deal,” Shea added.
In 2018, the Holy See agreed to a two-year provisional deal with the Chinese government, granting Beijing a role in the selection and vetting of candidates for episcopal appointment in Chinese dioceses. That deal, which was renewed in 2020, has been criticized for appearing to lend Vatican approval to efforts that force Catholic clergy in the country to acknowledge the Chinese Communist Party as the legitimate authority over Church affairs in China.
Since the deal was signed, China has come under growing international criticism for the mass imprisonment of more than one million Uighurs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where reports of systematic torture, sterilization, forced abortions, and ethnic cleansing have become frequent.
China has also moved to crack down on the exercise of civil liberties in Hong Kong, arresting several prominent Catholic pro-democracy activists and forcing the local diocese to issue warnings to Catholic priests and teachers to ensure sufficiently patriotic content in homilies and classrooms.
In recent years, the Holy See has been the target of several cyber-espionage attacks appearing to originate in China and apparently linked to China’s diplomatic negotiations with the Vatican.
In the months before the renewal of the Vatican-China deal in 2020, the cybersecurity media outlet Recorded Future reported that both the Vatican and the Diocese of Hong Kong had been targeted for hacks by RedDelta, a Chinese-state sponsored hacking organization. Other suspected network intrusions were identified at the Hong Kong Study Mission to China and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Italy.
Internal data from Grindr users’ accounts could include personal details, including mobile device identifiers, as well as access to private messages sent across the app. Because the app’s primary function is to facilitate hookups (casual sexual encounters), the Grindr app plots users’ locations and flags other users nearby, creating a map of nearby users.
But the use of Grindr is not the only potential security threat for the Holy See.
The data analyzed by The Pillar also showed more than a dozen devices with patterns of use for other location-based apps within the secure sections of the Vatican, with Badoo and Skout the most common apps identified. Both apps use the device’s location to connect them with other individuals nearby to meet.
Skout allows children under 17 to set up accounts on the app, although with limited functionality, and has been flagged in some reports for the ease with which minors can circumvent restrictions.
Badoo is registered in Cyprus and the U.K. and was created by a Russian developer in 2006. It boasts more than 40 million users worldwide and has been repeatedly flagged as a data security risk for users. While the company claims it has tightened its security, a 2019 report found that downloading the app granted access to more than 90% of a user’s phone or device data.
In 2015, Ashley Madison, an online hookup service explicitly catering to those looking to commit adultery, was hacked and its user data stolen. Much of the data was put online, and several account holders reported receiving blackmail threats demanding payment in Bitcoin.
While actual personal data could be used to blackmail, coerce, or extort app users within the Vatican, selective use of such data could also be misrepresented to extort senior officials who are actually unconnected with location-based apps, if they live in a residence at which a guest or fellow resident has used frequently a hookup or dating app.
Selective presentation or framing of app signal data could present a blackmail or extortion risk even to cardinals in the run-up to a future conclave.
The Pillar met for more than 90 minutes with both Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, along with Dr. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for communications, to present its findings July 17. The meeting’s discussion was agreed by all parties to be mutually confidential, but the fact of the meeting was not itself off-the-record.
After the meeting’s conclusion, Ruffini requested questions from The Pillar, which he said he would submit to Parolin for a response, and asked for a week for the formulation of a response, to which The Pillar agreed.
On July 18, the day after its meeting with Parolin and Ruffini, The Pillar was informed that a meeting with senior USCCB officials scheduled for Monday, July 19, had been cancelled. The Pillar was asked to submit written questions instead. Overnight between Sunday and Monday, one Catholic media outlet reported the possibility of forthcoming media reports on the issue of app signal data.
Late Sunday night, The Pillar submitted written questions to the USCCB at the conference’s request, and was then asked to extend an initial Monday deadline for response until the following day, which it did. On Tuesday, USCCB officials offered to schedule a meeting with The Pillar in the afternoon, to which The Pillar agreed. En route to that meeting, The Pillar learned from media reports that USCCB General Secretary Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill had resigned in response to “impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior.”
On July 23, Ruffini told The Pillar that “we have examined the questions you have posed to His Eminence the Secretary of State following on your meeting of 17 July. At this point, also in the light of what happened in recent days, I can say that no statement will be provided.”
Vatican City State policy does not presently prohibit employees or residents from the use of location-based hookup apps, even within secured locations connected to diplomatic responsibilities, Vatican officials have told The Pillar.
Editor’s note: Beijing Kunlun agreed to sell Grindr in 2020. This report initially identified incorrectly the year of that sale as 2018. The report has been corrected.
[End, The Pillar piece on the security issues of apps used in Vatican City]
Brief bios of the editors of The Pillar
Who we are:
JD Flynn, editor-in-chief, cofounder — [email protected]
Before co-founding The Pillar, JD Flynn was editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency. Before that, he was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, and a senior advisor to Bishop James Conley in the Diocese of Lincoln. He has an MA in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and a JCL in canon law from the Catholic University of America.
JD is a member of the College of Fellows at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, has served a consultor to the USCCB, and is published in the Washington Post, the New York Post, First Things, The Lamp, National Review, and in various Catholic publications.
Ed Condon, editor, cofounder — [email protected]
Before co-founding The Pillar, Ed Condon worked as the DC editor of the Catholic News Agency and was an associate editor of the Catholic Herald. His journalistic work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, National Review, the Washington Examiner, the Spectator, the Bulwark, First Things, as well as several academic and legal journals.
Ed is also a practicing canon lawyer, having worked in dioceses across three continents and the Holy See. Previously he spent nearly ten years working in professional politics in the United Kingdom.