Future Tense

Even This Bible App Collects Massive Amounts of User Data

An old-fashioned Bible

Photo by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images

Search for “Bible” on the iPhone App Store, and you’ll get 5,217 results. By far the most popular of these apps by download is YouVersion, which provides more than 600 ebook Bible translations in more than 400 languages, from Indonesian to German, as well as a vast array of interactive reading plans and options to have the Book of Psalms read to you.

The app’s creator, LifeChurch.tv, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, announced this month that the app had reached 100 million downloads, which it says puts it in the territory of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Over the past few weeks, numerous articles have been written about the app’s popularity.

As you might expect, that level of popularity breeds data—lots of it.

YouVersion knows a great deal about its users. Every second, 66,000 people are using the app, nine people highlight a passage, and three people share a passage on social media, as this company infographic shows. The app’s creator, Bobby Gruenewald, told the Atlantic’s Nir Eyal that YouVersion generated so much data that even Google took notice and sent its own engineers to help LifeChurch.tv sort out how to store and analyze the flow. For LifeChurch.tv, reading and sharing the Bible is another data-generating activity, with users’ preferences and habits infinitely recordable and transmissible.

Not only can your account be terminated for “any or no reason”; the YouVersion website and app may also collect IP addresses and GPS locations, and may selectively share data with affiliated publishers. From their privacy policy:

“When you use YouVersion, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends when you visit one of our websites. These server logs may include information such as your web request, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request, and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser.”

This type of privacy policy is not unique, by any means. To be fair, YouVersion is a step ahead of many app publishers for even having a policy. But like other popular ereader apps, such as Amazon’s Kindle, YouVersion offers its users a pretty slim choice. If you read the privacy notice (and who does?), you are given notice that if you create an account, the app will collect personal, identifying information. You can read their Bible without signing up, but then you won’t have access special features such as Pastor Billy Graham’s Bible reading plan or add comments to the Messianic Jewish Bible without LifeChurch.tv knowing.

Such a volume of data about a large and specific set of consumers must be irresistible to commercial interests. Amy O’Leary wrote in the New York Times that “the church has fielded a variety of requests, including from a Christian music web site, a major Hollywood movie studio and television producers like Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who featured YouVersion alongside their biblical History Channel mini-series this year.” In fact, Eyal writes:

According to industry experts, the YouVersion Bible is likely worth a bundle. Jules Maltz, General Partner at Institutional Venture Partners, told me, “As a rule of thumb, a company this size could be worth $200 million and up.”

“Of course, this assumes the company can monetize through standard advertising,” Maltz added. Gruenewald, however, says he has no intention of ever turning a profit from the app.

Despite multiple buyout offers and monetization opportunities, the Bible app remains strictly a money-losing venture. The apps’ backer, Lifechurch.tv, has invested more than $20 million but according to Gruenewald, “the goal is to reach and engage as many people as possible with scripture. That’s all.” So far, Gruenewald is meeting his goal.

Even without using data to target its users with ads, however, it’s troubling that the religious habits and locations of YouVersion readers must be subject to more surveillance than if they opened their old paper Bibles in the privacy of their homes. If LifeChurch.tv has no intention of profiting on the company, then why bother with such intensive data collection? As we know, even the most secure user data is liable to leak, as happened earlier this year at LivingSocial when their network was hacked.

But the app’s creator, Bobby Gruenewald, told me that the data they collect is used to improve the experience of the app, with the aim of helping people globally to engage with the Bible. In the same way that Amazon uses data to suggest books its users might like, YouVersion wants to understand the common attributes and habits of groups who use the app regularly and make alterations to encourage readers to return more often. He also emphasized that while they do share data such as the most commonly shared passages with their publishing partners, this is only on a macro level and not on a per user basis. According to Gruenewald, YouVersion follows all standard precautions to ensure their user data is safe.

Apps like YouVersion are one reason why groups such as the ACLU are calling for a “privacy code of conduct” for mobile apps, like the one announced last week by the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This code provides a clearer indication of the types of data that apps collect and which third-party companies or organizations the app might share data with. But the code has been criticized by some in the tech community for being toothless—it’s voluntary and not legally enforceable, and Apple and Google have not yet indicated if they will implement the code in their app stores.

So if you’re one of the 15.13 percent of YouVersion users reading God’s word during your commute, as this survey shows, just be aware, your Bible might know exactly which state you’re traveling in.