Computer-privacy Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of grumbing about Facebook and it’s shifting stance on privacy. What I haven’t heard a lot of, however, are thoughts on how to think biblically about privacy.

I gather many believe privacy is a good thing; that it’s erosion is a bad thing. But of what basis do we found such beliefs? Is the foundation biblical, or merely cultural? How might we go about articulating a cross cultural ethic for instance?

Given what I’ve said about different theological-ethical streams of Christian thought, how might Covenant, Dispensationalist and Christocentric Christians differ in how they approach the question?

13 thoughts on “Thinking biblically about privacy

  1. My thoughts are along the same line as my thoughts on security cameras, data mining (like Amazon monitoring what books you buy, or what passages you highlight on a Kindle)… if you’re not doing the wrong thing you shouldn’t be worried.
    Facebook are using your data to sell stuff to you better, and to help the people who give them money do the same, if you don’t want stuff sold to you – don’t join.
    I don’t think privacy is necessarily a theological category – it tends, in my experience, to be more a political category.
    The only Biblical category I can think of is that we have no privacy before God. That all our actions are essentially on show for him. If we live our lives according to that philosophy we don’t have much to worry about when it comes to things being put before others.
    This might not be the case if you’re in a “secret” kind of position – I guess missionaries might have something to worry about…
    Anyway, those are just some possibly thoughts.

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  2. Good point about secrecy sometimes being necessary for missionaries. In actual fact, I am obliged to engage in coded conversations with some overseas missionary I support. I consider their caution well founded given friends of theirs were martyred a few years back. There’s a good reason they’re not on facebook.

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  3. Privacy means that “your” information (what you read and buy, the causes you support, with whom you associate, etc), can’t be used against you by those so minded to do so (e.g. employers or governments penalizing your disagreement with their policies), or sold to such people by financially motivated intermediaries.
    That’s why democracies use a secret ballot; it’s liberating. It helps dissuade those with power from using that power coercively, and is thus concordant in part with freedom of speech, association and worship.
    The statement that:
    > if you’re not doing the wrong thing you shouldn’t be worried.
    … assumes that others will interpret your actions and statements fairly and without misrepresentation, presumption or bias. This is naive and often false.
    Moreover, the companies and authorities most likely to use information against those less powerful will never themselves submit to accountability and openness, leading to teh knowledge equivalent of asymmetric warfare in the conduct of their regimes or businesses.
    A lack of concern for individual privacy at a social level allows the strong to leverage their power against the weak with more precision. I find even the media’s predation of celebrity to be conspicuously inhumane on Christian principles.

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  4. “assumes that others will interpret your actions and statements fairly and without misrepresentation, presumption or bias. This is naive and often false.”
    Not necessarily, it simply assumes that nothing within your control will cause others to negatively interpret your actions and statements.
    Facebook is not compulsory. Nor is posing for stupid photos that find their way online.
    I don’t think, in the context of a discussion about privacy and Facebook, or the other options I gave, that the assumption is naive or often false. It’s completely opt in.
    We have pretty good control, at this stage (in Australia), over what information about us gets made public and what stays private.
    Any time my words or actions have been construed negatively or with some sort of bias it has been based on things that I have knowingly put in the public domain. I put them there expecting that to happen occasionally, I can’t completely mitigate human sinfulness.
    I think Matthew 5:13-17 and even 37 (let your yes be yes says something about integrity and honesty), and 6:1-3, are also applicable for an approach to an online “presence.” I don’t think we should be aiming for “privacy” but publicity, and I think we should be prepared to be called to account (and to give an account) for our behaviour.
    Concerns about privacy in voyeuristic settings seem contradictory to me.
    But it’s a question that needs answering.

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  5. “Concerns about privacy in voyeuristic settings seem contradictory to me.” LOL, yes I feel much the same way. Long ago I adopted the attitude: if I’m worried about anything being hacked or inadvertantly disclosed via Facebook, maybe I shouldn’t be writing it on Facebook anyway?! So long ago I set my privacy settings to minimal and decided to write as if everything was public, whether it was a supposedly closed forum or not. Then I can always sleep at night. Things that are genuinely privite, like my kids photos, just don’t make it online period.

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  6. I don’t know if there is a theological basis for privacy expect that of justice because certainly there are things that could be appropriate in their place, time and setting that could be misunderstood in an inappropriate context. I personally don’t have that many concerns about it but I am well aware that we do not live in a just world and information can be used to hurt people.
    I think considering FB as a open site is the safest. But because of it’s lack of privacy there are going to be groups of people that will not be able to use FB at all.

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  7. When I decided to start blogging under my own name, I did it with a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) leap of faith.
    I decided to take the same approach to Facebook. I still keep my privacy setting on Facebook pretty tight, but I’m not overly worried about it.
    I don’t do anything (anymore) that I’m ashamed of or am worried about becoming public. I can’t do anything about my past but repent. 🙂

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  8. I think it’s largely a cultural thing, and that few people have thought through the implications of what they see as “private”, and we often hold contradictory views on it. Urban dwellers seem to enjoy, and hence desire, a greater degree of privacy than people living in small villages and rural areas.
    Many people, for example, regard telephone tapping and the government monitoring the mail of private citizens as an invasion of privacy and therefore a bad thing. Yet in small villages a few years ago (in the days of manual telephone exchanges) the main souces of village gossip were the operators at the telephone exchange and the doctor’s receptionist.
    I’ve been writing an article about the mentality of the Security Police in South Africa in the apartheid era, based on my own file, and the reports refer frequently to “a sensitive source”, and it is clear that this often refers to someone in the post office reading outgoing mail to foreign countries, which was illegal without a court order, but that did not deter the Security Police.
    So where does one draw the line?
    Interesting topic.

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  9. Another text that is about privacy issues is Mark 1:40-45.
    Jesus heals a leper, then tells him not to blab to any one else about it but to go and get checked out by his local clergyman.
    Instead of doing that, “the man went away and began to spread the news everywhere” (vs. 45).
    That abuse of privacy had very serious consequences in terms of Jesus’ privacy (and safety).
    Jesus, I think, in healing this leper was not seeking celebrity super-star status, but the fellow “talked so much that Jesus could not go into town publicly”, and he was forced to retreat – “to stay out in lonely places”. But despite doing that “people came to him from everywhere”.

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  10. A few quick thoughts over lunch… Safety is the obvious and simple justice issue; that’s a no brainer.
    a) Revelation: using visionary code language, allowing statements against the government while avoiding persecution.
    b) Jesus ‘no longer goes about publicly’ after hearing threats.
    An set of insidious and shadowy complications are created, however, by the ability of corporations, especially using cross-site trackers, to aggregate broad spectrums of user data including when we are at home each week, our interests and affiliations (book buying patterns), and so on. Vastly more info than any cyberstalker would be able to obtain. This could greatly improve the accuracy of a password-guessing script, for example.
    Try installing the ghostery plug-in for Firefox, and watch how the sites you visit are tracking your behaviour, and (at least at the tip of the iceberg) what networks they share it with. Then consider who those networks are owned by, and who they sell data to. There’s no real accountability in this area. For Matt’s blog, for example, the trackers are run by Feedburner, Google Analytics, Media6 Degrees, Quantcast, Revenue Science, Six Apart Advertising and TypePad Stats.
    Now theologically, the interesting question is selective disclosure, which goes all the way to the top. First from God’s perspective:
    a) Parables: open secrets, “given to you but not to them”.
    b) This taps directly into the much larger question of Christian particularism. Why Abraham/Israel?
    c) The “pure in heart will see God” — why not everyone?
    But God’s perogatives aren’t necessarily ours; we’re contingent. He knows all things intrinsically, and will disclose them in the execution of justice, so that it is also perceived justice. How does selective disclosure on our part relate to social ethics, social identity and so on?
    As a starting question: what is the case for having the ability to limit or examine the information which others hold about you? Is that a justice issue? What would you want others to do for you? What should you then do for others?
    To take a concrete example: If you find an ‘S’ mark on your passport, so that you are continually strip-searched at airports, do you have the right to know what information prompted this, or what source it came from? You could reply “well if you don’t like it, don’t use airports”, which I think directly parallels the statement “if you don’t want everything you do to be public knowledge, don’t use facebook,” email, the internet, etc. But there is a reasonable presumption that public infrastructure should be run equitably. I think social media is now in that category and has civil responsibilities.
    As an afterthought, what if the ‘S’ on your passport was due to a bot temporarily and untraceably assuming your facebook identity in order to post defamatory messages? There are a whole raft of justice issues which are best pre-empted before they occur by holding organizations accountable for maintaining privacy standards.

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  11. Kalessin
    Now you’re on my wavelength. These are great reflections.
    You’ve also got me asking, who the heck are Revenue Science and Media6 Degrees! I knew about the others but these two were unknown to me.
    The concept of open secrets is a particularly interesting one to introduce. I dive into that territory deeply when blogging about my family, my church, my work and other more sensitive and personal subjects, avoiding keywords that might identify the individuals and organisations being discussed. Sometimes I use SEO to get ranked and tracked by the wider world, sometimes I use negative SEO to avoid being ranked and tracked by the wider world. Sometimes I use keywords and symbols to draw the attention of one community while leaving other communities in the dark. Dog whistle blogging. Your comments on Revelation get me thinking.
    I think this discussion is drawing us towards more solid ground. I see red flags when we try to define justice issues without reference to the God of justice. Very uncomfortable with suggestions it’s a purely secular.

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  12. Sometimes we will say in one group of people what we would be uncomfortable saying with others present. (Christian in-house talk is a particular example in my experience) On the internet you never know who is going to read something, so you have to be more careful.

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