Trump pal JD Vance says Big Tech data collection should be 'illegal' — but set to profit from it

Trump pal JD Vance says Big Tech data collection should be 'illegal' — but set to profit from it
"Hillbilly Elegy" author J. D. Vance speaking at the 2021 Southwest Regional Conference, hosted by Turning Point USA at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona, Gage Skidmore
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Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance stands to profit from the same Big Tech data collection tactics he has attacked on the campaign trail.

Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy" and the co-founder of the venture capital firm Narya Capital, has focused many of his talking points on Big Tech, which has become a popular target of the Trump wing of the GOP. But Vance himself made much of his fortune investing in tech companies. Vance received Donald Trump's endorsement earlier this month in the crowded primary race to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. He has been especially outspoken about data collection tactics used by tech giants, but his firm recently invested in a religious app that does exactly that, harvesting user data as a "business asset."

During an interview with Breitbart News in January, Vance complained about companies "stealing our data and selling it to our enemies."

"There is nothing that says that Google should be allowed to harvest your data as a consumer," he said.

Vance went as far as calling to ban the practice in a video posted to Facebook. "Maybe we should make it illegal for them — or at least require disclosure before they steal our data, before they harvest our data and then sell it back to us in the form of targeted advertising," he said.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation earlier this year revealed certain religious and prayer apps prey on unwitting users by collecting their data and sharing it with third-party vendors. One such app mentioned in the report is Hallow, which targets Roman Catholics and collects "extensive information about their users." The company says it does not currently sell user data, but reserves "sole discretion" to share it however it chooses.

Hallow, the "#1 Catholic prayer and meditation app," recently completed a $40 million investment round that included J.D. Vance's company, Narya Capital, along with Peter Thiel.

Hallow bills itself as the "#1 Catholic prayer and meditation app," and announced last November that it completed a $40 million investment round that included Narya and Peter Thiel, the Trump megadonor who is bankrolling Vance's Senate bid to the tune of at least $13.5 million. Hallow is one of just seven apps that Narya lists in its portfolio. Vance is a co-founder and partner at Narya, which has paid him more than $400,000 since January 2020, according to a recent personal finance disclosure.

Hallow collects "extensive information" about its users, although company officials told BuzzFeed News it has not shared user information with third parties.. The company's privacy policy allows it to share the data with partners for targeted advertising and gives the company "sole discretion" to disclose information to marketing firms, the government or other third parties. The company, which offers a free and paid versions of its app, categorizes user data as a "business asset," perhaps "one of their most valuable," according to the BuzzFeed investigation.

Though the company is not yet selling data, privacy researcher Zach Edwards told BuzzFeed that was likely to change at any time without notice. "Until these prayer apps have been around for a few years," he said, "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."

Other apps like Bible Gateway, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., are already making money by sharing user data into an ad targeting system called NewsIQ, which claims it can "capture the preferences, opinions and emotions" that advertisers could exploit.

Lawmakers expressed concerns over the BuzzFeed investigation.

"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. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs a Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee on consumer protection and data security, told BuzzFeed.

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told BuzzFeed that companies "have a duty to explain if and how their users' personal prayers are being used by marketers," adding that "concealing that information would be a disgusting indication that they prioritize profits over faith."

Vance's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but a Democratic PAC criticized Vance over his ties to the company.

"J.D. Vance is a Silicon Valley insider who's being propped up by his tech billionaire former boss," Brad Bainum, spokesperson for American Bridge 21st Century, told Salon, "and keeps proving that he's a total and complete fraud who can't be trusted."

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