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Kerala Church dismisses data-selling claim as baseless

Dioceses have not even completed data collection for a mobile phone app, say Syro-Malabar officials

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Updated: May 07, 2020 12:44 PM GMT
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Kerala Church dismisses data-selling claim as baseless

Indian women check emails and browse the internet at an Akshaya (Eternal) e-learning centre in Mundakulam village of Malappuram district in Kerala in this 2004 file photo. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP)

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India’s Syro-Malabar Church has rejected as baseless a claim that it collects and sells Catholics’ personal information to an unnamed US-based company for millions of dollars.

Officials of the Eastern-rite Church, based in Kerala state in southern India, said the “baseless allegation” comes from disgruntled members and aims to discredit the Church and confuse the faithful.

Social media discussions claim a mobile phone application developed by the Church’s Internet Mission has been contracted to an overseas company to collect and sell personal data. It is claimed the contract involves millions of dollars.

“This is an absurd allegation,” said Bishop Jose Porunnedom, chairman of the Internet Mission (IM) that started a decade ago to help use internet technology for the benefit of the Church.

The IM developed the application to help connect with the Church’s some 3,200 parishes spread over 35 dioceses and make communication faster. Some 13 dioceses are outside its base in Kerala and four are outside India.

"We have not sold any personal data of our subscribers to anyone or compromised on their privacy. The allegations are absolutely baseless and an attempt to discredit the Church and create confusion among the faithful,” Bishop Porunnedom told UCA News. Some disgruntled Catholics are behind the allegations, he said.

Those who accuse the Church of wrongdoing have not produced any documents to substantiate their claims. The Kerala state and federal governments are facing similar charges over mobile phone applications they developed.

The government applications have been purportedly developed to collect and update data about the health status of people in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But opposition politicians expressed fears that data would be shared with foreign companies for commercial gain, breaching people's privacy.

Bishop Porunnedom of Manathavady Diocese in Kerala told UCA News on May 5 that the allegations are “aimed at maligning the Church.” He challenged those leading the campaign to produce evidence to prove their claims.

“We have nothing to hide and are ready to prove our innocence," the prelate said, indicating that he and the IM are ready to face investigation by “any government agency or from any expert of reputation."

Shaiju Antony, a Catholic lay leader, however, told UCA News that the matter is "a great concern" for nearly five million Catholics of the Syro-Malabar Church.

He said, based on the social media posts, he fears that the IM project has not fully complied with the Indian law that protects the privacy of an app's subscribers.

However, IM director Father Joby Joseph Maprakavil said fears among people about possible theft of their personal data are unwarranted.

The app aims for faster communication and better efficiency in the functioning of parishes, the priest said. It allows parishioners to make enquiries and apply for certificates online, while parishes can create certificates and print them out easily and accurately, he explained.

“We don’t take any more personal details than what is necessary — essentials such as name, address, mobile number or email address. This is being done at parish level with the approval of the parish priest to avoid fake entries,” he said.

The app also allows a diocesan bishop and the Church’s major archbishop, Cardinal George Alencherry, to communicate with their members “to help them grow better in unity and understanding,” the priest added.

“Whatever data is collected is safely in our custody and we do not share it with anyone, including our technology partner, who is based in Kerala, not in the US as projected," the priest said. The IM also has a legally binding non-disclosure agreement with the technology provider, Father Maprakavil added.

The collected data is stored in a server accessed by IM. Moreover, the project has only recently started and it will take another two to three years to complete it. “Practically no diocese has completed the data collection, so the talk about data sales is absolutely baseless,” the priest said.

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