Fixing Our Privacy Settings

Alexa is my saviour. The digital voice assistant from Amazon hears me shoulder my way into the back kitchen 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 picture a head-phoned FBI operative in a van outside (and I don’t suppose he would care much about my groceries). 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 are more private moments 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. 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, but we also 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 the offline community. It could be one of the greatest opportunities for a 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 privacy. Of course, we have been violated—it feels obvious and unsettling. 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 about 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 have 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 personalised ads. 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 per cent 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? A Google search for “theology of privacy” returns a page of links dominated by respected centres of theological reflection: Princeton and Claremont, Fuller and Westminster. Unfortunately, each entry is only the privacy policy of each seminary’s website. 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 marginalised. 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). 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.

The Intimacy Paradox

The “Collect for Purity” from the Book of Common Prayer is recited weekly by Anglican Christians all over the world. Evoking Jeremiah 23:24 and Romans 2:16, it begins, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from you, no secrets are hidden.” Perhaps the best starting place for a Christian view of privacy is to ask: Does anyone have privacy in the presence of an all-knowing God? In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve run into the trees of the garden in shame when they hear their Creator walking through the Garden. “Who told you that you were naked?” God asks. Before their transgression, before the curse, Adam and Eve were “naked and felt no shame.” Now they wear clothes and hide. Is it possible that what we call “privacy” is part of the curse? That something as ubiquitous and natural as clothes have a sinister side? Maybe our fear or defence against the knowledge of others is rooted in a deeply broken part of our sinful nature. There’s a certain uneasy truth to this. Carved into our souls, we both long for—and fear—intimacy. Our desire to be known and loved is outdone only by our fear of being known and loved. This intimacy paradox is a result of the Fall. It’s why I make jokes just when the conversation is getting deep or why sometimes my anger flares against those who know me best. It’s why I feel a flash of fear when a stranger unexpectedly knows a fact about me. And we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think this affects how we see privacy in a digital world. Whether at family dinner or on our iPhones, we are constantly negotiating our deeply ambivalent drive to both be known and hide, to post or delete, pull down the window shades or strut down the street.

When God remakes the new heavens and earth—when God removes all sin once for all—is privacy also removed? “Now I know in part,” says Paul, “then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). So does the Christian reject privacy? No. But insight of our sinful default to run from God and each other, we may have to rethink it. Theologians have defended privacy in a variety of ways. “Privacy is a gift from God,” writes Stoddart. For these thinkers, the foundational idea is human dignity. “Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity,” writes George, citing the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the Vatican’s Dignitatis Humanae and the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolutions on religious liberty. George argues that a surveillance state is ultimately a coercive state that undermines true relationships as it idolatrously attempts to mimic God’s omniscience. Stoddart, meanwhile, says the right to manage our privacy is “a practice of liberating potential towards the flourishing to which God calls us.” Flourishing and dignity are easy to affirm. But we should root our definition of privacy even more deeply. Scripture doesn’t align human dignity by being able to withdraw or be autonomous. Instead, to fully flourish as a human made by God is to be fully connected—fully known and fully loved.

Creatures of the Two Eyes

The other day, I heard a popular idea about heaven repeated at a dinner party. “Well, when we get to heaven we’ll know,” a friend concluded. Others nodded in agreement. I’m not sure where the idea started that heaven makes us all-knowing. As theologian Peter Kreeft says flatly, “Will we know everything in heaven? I think not.” Heaven doesn’t make us like God; it makes us as God intended us. How are we made? With creaturely limits. In Revelation 4, John envisions living creatures surrounding the throne of God. They have hundreds of eyes. On their bodies. On wings. Eyes that represent the all-seeing knowledge of the Creator God. By contrast, I have two. My eyes can lock with other two-eyed creatures but only with one of them at a time. I have two eyes to apprehend, two ears to understand, two legs to carry me from person to person. My natural limits create natural circles, close and far, known and less known—coded into my God-made design. Privacy by limitation. Here’s where we hit the core of our redefinition of privacy. Privacy, at its core, is about human relationship. This is why the world around us feels the symptoms, but struggles to treat the disease. Laws and tech switches create artificial and unsatisfying borders and boundaries for creatures made to know God and each other.

This relational insight is what drove Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech, to redefine what a violation of privacy is. Simply, public and private were too simple. Nissenbaum, who coined the concept of “contextual integrity” of privacy, noticed that people weren’t bothered by others knowing they had a cancer diagnosis. They were bothered by unexpected people knowing. Maybe a sister was in the know while Mom was too hard to tell. A doctor might know, or even an acquaintance at a cancer support group. The relational-social connection—not the type of information—mattered the most. And folks needed to understand the relational map around them and who knew what. Nissenbaum’s theories explain why small changes to Facebook’s news feed provoke a privacy uproar. This is odd when we pause on it. After all, it’s us—not Facebook—posting a staggering 4.5 billion photos and status updates daily and only people we’ve selected can see them. But our relational maps are complex, and we get confused by our digital settings. Who did we allow to see what? What relationships were affected? That sense of relational uncertainty feels like privacy is at risk.

The Country, the City, and the Suburbs

Seeing privacy through relational circles helps us understand some patterns we see as people react to the uncertain world of digital privacy. I call these patterns the “country people,” the “suburbs people,” or the “city people” approach. These have nothing to do with where one lives, but the terms seem apt. “Country people” face the threat of privacy by seeking distance from others. Like a house out of sight from the next neighbour, these people decide to delete (or never start) their Facebook account and tend to avoid putting themselves in situations that might encourage personal disclosure. By contrast, “suburbs people” stay close but keep the garage door down and the security system on. Maintaining privacy here is a matter of defending, whether keeping the blinds down or constantly adjusting privacy settings on YouTube. Or there’s the city approach: In a place where facing high-rise windows make seeing into opposite living rooms ordinary, this approach is resigned to certain anonymity where probably nobody is watching but anybody might. All these attitudes, for their various appeals, seem to fall short of what a Christian ideal could be.

The isolated country approach is C. S. Lewis’s perfect picture of hell. He writes in The Great Divorce of a dim place where each person relocates their house “millions of miles” away from their neighbour. The fear-based, suburbs-style defence may show prudence but is hard to square with a picture of a Jesus who easily shared table fellowship with the rabble in the neighbourhood. The city-style resignation to a system that overshares but no one cares is to float aimlessly, even recklessly, in the anonymity of the crowd when Jesus calls each disciple by name. There’s a better way. While each of these reactions faces the world, Christians have a different starting place: the local church. The relational map of the ecclesial community reframes the entire question of privacy. It starts back where we began: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open.” If digital settlers worry that someone might be watching, local church people know for certain Someone is and they know that Someone can be trusted even when neighbours cannot be. Life as church people starts with the truth that God does hear all and see all. The glowing Alexa in our kitchen becomes a digital icon of a greater spiritual reality. Terrifying? Reassuring? It’s relational! If God is on our fringes, we feel violated. If he’s at the centre, his presence feels like salvation itself. Salvation is a God who hears—who hears the weeping of lost Hagar, the celebration of humble Mary, the secret denial of scared Peter. Salvation is a God who knows our intimacy paradox—the simultaneous longing and fear of being known. The church challenges our temptations to independence (country), defence (suburbs), or anonymity (city). The body of Christ, the true community, alone has the power to heal our isolation, our fears, our loneliness.

The New Testament witness takes much of what we might naturally think of as private and makes it a matter of the community. James tells us to confess our sins to each other so we may be healed; Paul assumes that sexual relationships affect the whole community (1 Cor. 6). Suffering is similar; if one suffers, we all do. Acts 2:42–47 calls us to a life together that shares property, table, and “everything in common.” Mark D. Roberson points out that many of the qualifications of a community elder in 1 Timothy are pretty personal: home finances, disciplining children, alcohol consumption. Of course, those natural, relational circles matter here. My two-eyed limits mean my most vulnerable spaces in the church are still my closest circles (family, accountability groups), then my wider circles (small groups or missional communities), and then the widest. I can’t know everyone, and everyone can’t know me. But we’re all called to radical vulnerability.

From Being Seen to Being Known

In the freedom of knowing the Knower, we do have a new power. Instead of a posture of hiding, we have the power of self-revelation. This is the great reversal that Christian thinking brings to knowledge and relationship, intimacy and privacy. The question is not, “How can I protect myself?” but “How can I reveal my life?” To reveal our life to others is to love them. Think of the power of Christian testimony, especially when it is deeply honest. Tears flow. Cruciform self-revelation directly enters the fear-space where others seek to isolate, defend, or anonymise. It counters the relational desperation of the sin around us with vulnerability and witness. The world is desperate for this. Social work researcher Brene Brown’s 2010 TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top five most watched in the world. “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen,” she says.

Ecclesial community empowers and models truly seeing. It is the church for the sake of others. In the great cloud of witnesses, the church says boldly, “Let me be a city on a hill! A light that cannot be hidden.” This may sound idyllic and out of touch with our church experience, or hopelessly romantic in the face of news reports of Russian spies, political operatives manipulating social graphs, and daily data breaches. But the news doesn’t release us of our calling to be vulnerable for the sake of the kingdom. A pastor friend of mine tells me of a Sunday morning where they had visitors. The neighbourhood gathering sat in a small Chicago storefront adjacent a coffee shop, and Sundays brought in all kinds—those steeped in church norms, alongside those who weren’t. On this morning, standing alongside small rows of orange chairs, the group began the confession of sin. “Merciful God, we humbly confess our sins,” the worship leader read. Heads bowed in practised silence. “God, I’m angry,” Helena said aloud, heads turning toward her. Helena was visiting. “And I gossiped,” she added. From that Sunday on, they all confessed aloud. Do you see it? The presence of an all-knowing, all-loving God creates the safety of the church, which can become a witness to the world.

Are there limits to how we share? Well yes, we can’t pretend the world isn’t sinful. There will be those who seek to harm. But to the extent that the church can be the “now and not yet”—a picture of the future kingdom—we can live dramatically more openly and more securely than our neighbours can because God is our protector. Each day’s news of a personal data server breach allows me to remember that my numbers are not me. I am not my Social Security number. My last three Amazon purchases and my zip code do not shape my core identity. That cannot be stolen. But even theft of my credit card number, that holy grail of consumer-identity culture, reminds me that my resources are not my own. When we feel weird about a co-worker knowing something that they saw on Facebook, let’s reveal more. Can we see their desire for personal knowledge of us as an invitation to love one whose deep desire is a relational touch? Perhaps they took something that we didn’t offer. Let’s recognise the moment and give our cloak also.

Children of the All-Knowing God

I hear the detractors. How does a local church have any relation to a FISA court or global hackers? The size mismatch seems impossible. We have no control. Isn’t this hopelessly naive? What if there is real harm from a violation of privacy? Peter calls us to a living hope today tethered on a future glory tomorrow. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened’ ” (1 Peter 3.13). Christians may suffer now, he reminds us, but Christ himself undid death by death. O Death, where is your sting? There will be powers that threaten to watch us. This false seeing—apart from the community—may violate our sense our control over relational knowledge or even do more harm. Our all-knowing God is the hope and true resistance—true seeing in the face of false watching. Oh eyes, where is your stare?

This is not a call to abandon all common sense. There will certainly be more to say as Christians apply the Word to a changing world. I eagerly await more theological conversation on questions of data security, government surveillance, and living our lives in a social media world. Our theology of digital privacy might get an update with the next operating system. And there’s more to say practically about daily tech use. Should a Christian own Alexa? What Facebook privacy settings should we use? But reflection on tech doesn’t just apply to tech. Online issues very often mirror offline realities. Let’s start with considering the radical gospel power of real-world, vulnerable, witnessing communities and see where that leads us into the virtual world. Those of us who live in the local church community know a God who knows all. We know we cannot hide, nor can we isolate or anonymise to survive. Instead, in the great reversal, we claim our spot to be witnessed by a watching world.

Credit: Chris Ridgeway for Christianity Today, September 2018.