Alexa is my savior.
The digital voice assistant from Amazon hears me shoulder my way into the kitchen back door, arms loaded with bags and keys jangling from a pinkie. “Alexa, turn on the lights!” I command with a little desperation. Thanks, Alexa, I think as the lights blink on and I avoid a stumble with my gallon of milk. I don’t say it aloud—it’s a little crazy to thank your digital assistant, right? Plus there’s that little question of who might be listening.
I don’t actually picture a headphoned FBI operative in a van outside (and I don’t suppose he would care much about my groceries). Yet once the lights are on and our music is playing (“Alexa, play ’90s pop!”), I sometimes wonder. The new presence of digital microphones in our houses—over 20 million sold in 2017—has started a new wave of discomfort about what or who might hear what we say in our living room or kitchen. What more private moments are these microphones capturing?
The year 2013 was a wake-up call for digital privacy. Government surveillance concerns—previously the purview of spy movies and conspiracy theorists—went mainstream after Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency was collecting Americans’ data.
While much of the surveillance amounted to an anonymous database of call logs like the kind found on phone bills—not voice recordings—Americans started wondering what else they didn’t know about government eyes and ears.
That same Black Friday, millions stood in line to grab bargains from big-box retailers, unaware that hackers had infiltrated Target’s customer service system and were stealing credit card numbers and other data on an unprecedented scale. Most of the 61 million people affected—including me, and likely you—were issued a new credit card.
Yet five years on, it feels less like we’re awake and more like we’ve been hitting snooze. We doze in and out of credit score hacks, apologies from Facebook on losing 80 million records to Cambridge Analytica, or news about flying drones with cameras.
If there is a particularly Christian angle to all this, a unique way that Christians are called to respond, it feels elusive. Has your pastor preached a sermon on Facebook settings or surveillance cameras? Mine hasn’t. Is there a biblical view of privacy settings?
The truth is, Christians not only have something to say about server hacking, we have the one way of life that offers deep relief to a slumbering and anxious world. It requires us starting over on our definition of privacy and adopting a biblical (and even radical) approach to not online, but offline community. It could be one of the greatest opportunities for witness of this digital decade.
Searching for Privacy
“When was a time you felt your privacy was violated? What happened?” I’ve been asking this question at parties and coffee shops and family gatherings. Most folks quickly agree they are anxious about their own privacy. Of course we have been violated—it feels obvious and unsettling.
Yet when pressed for specifics, we often come up blank. There are stories. A friend at Whole Foods had a stranger stand over his shoulder and read his laptop screen. A college roommate stole a read from a personal journal. Pregnancy news got passed around the family in a way a couple wouldn’t have preferred. But most folks default back to media reports. Data breaches from major companies or C-SPAN debates about surveillance courts are felt personally—even without direct personal harm.
The resulting level of alarm is surprisingly uneven. After church, a management consultant tells me that his team has started using tape to block the cameras on their laptop computers. They worry of hackers gaining unbidden spy access across the internet. “I think they’re crazy,” he says.
Polls confirm we don’t agree with each other, or even with ourselves. Americans are split down the middle on approving cameras at work; two-thirds dislike a hypothetical website allowing users to contact old college friends for free in exchange for personalized ads. Yet Facebook—the same business model—hosts 2.19 billion monthly active users.
There are reasons for the contradictions. Tech is moving fast—new phones and new features leaving even smart folks feeling behind. And new security threats shift opinions up or down.
And our experiences vary by culture and privilege. Few of my white friends could point to privacy violations. But almost every black American has stories of being followed closely by security officers while shopping, of unusually invasive police officers’ questions, or of other times they’ve lost the “right to be left alone.” (Even so, polls show that black Americans are more likely than white Americans to support government surveillance and to say technology has improved their privacy.)
Similarly, friends with hidden disabilities and long-term health issues have good reason to worry that potential employers would discriminate against them if their expensive treatments were ever discovered.
Differing experiences and tech dysphoria help explain our cultural uncertainty on privacy. But some of the strongest contradictions are sitting right in front of us. For instance, when it comes to trading my email address for a 10 percent discount coupon, I can’t type faster. I may not like what companies know, but I’m the one telling them.
In such an uncertain cultural landscape, can we build a Christian foundation?
Two years ago, I visited a Chicago symposium on the theological interpretation of Scripture and asked the evangelical biblical scholars and theologians in attendance, “Who is writing on a Christian view of privacy?” I got thoughtful but puzzled stares. Most couldn’t think of anyone.
There have been small forays by theologians like Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School) and Mark D. Roberts (Fuller Theological Seminary), but they are short pieces and few and far between. Outside of American evangelicalism, UK theologian Eric Stoddart, partially prompted by the ubiquitous security cameras in the heart of London, wrote a monograph on facing a surveillance society and its particularly harsh impact on the marginalized. It’s the only book-length treatment of the topic to date.
The Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics does manage a brief entry on privacy. It cites Galatians 2:2—Paul meeting with Jerusalem leaders behind closed doors. Or Mark 4:34—Jesus explains parables to his disciples after the crowds leave. And yes, 1 Samuel 24:3 where Saul, ahem, relieves himself in a cave (not outside with his 3,000 men). Yet these passages are more descriptive than prescriptive. The entry ultimately seems to give up, admitting “the Bible is a poor resource for the modern concept of privacy.”
Maybe there’s another starting point.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Chris Ridgeway