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  • Sep5Fri

    The End of Privacy

    In the digital age, is privacy a thing of the past? September 5, 2014
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought

    The Salvation Army - - JimThe Salvation Army - - AimeeIn their Talking It Over series, Dr. James Read, director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Dr. Aimee Patterson, Christian ethics consultant at the centre, dialogue about moral and ethical issues.



    I saw the word “sexting” for the first time when I was in London, England, in 2008 for a meeting of the International Moral and Social Issues Council. It was in a story on the front page of one of those British tabloids. Headline-grabbing fluff, I thought.

    A couple of days later, the picture on the front page of the same paper showed young stockbrokers exiting an office tower carrying boxes of their personal belongings. Lehman Brothers had collapsed and they were suddenly out of work. So sad, I thought.

    Six years ago, I had no inkling of the huge importance of either of these stories. And I didn't connect them at the time. But looking back, I see several common themes, one of them being privacy.

    The collapse of the financial sector was partly about not enough disclosure of information. Investors had no way of assessing the real risks of bundled “securities.” It's no surprise that I myself wouldn't know a lot about sub-prime loans, but when my bank uses my savings to buy sub-prime loan derivatives, I expect them to know what they are doing.

    Sexting, on the other hand, seems to involve disclosing too much information. According to WebMD, 28 percent of American high-school youth have texted or e-mailed pictures of themselves naked and 70 percent of the girls had been asked to! What I thought was a quirky tabloid story in 2008 now makes me heartsick. Rehtaeh Parsons, a teenager in Nova Scotia, was sexted, cyberbullied and eventually committed suicide. Who can smirk at that?

    Disclosure, privacy, cover-up, confidentiality. Lehman Brothers and Rehtaeh Parsons cry out for society-wide solutions. But it's tough terrain to negotiate, don't you find?

    Grace and peace,



    The privacy concerns you've mentioned are both precipitous and sweeping in their range. And we haven't even gotten to Edward Snowden!

    I think the error comes when we apply similar standards for information disclosure to different kinds of relationships. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once asked the question, “What does it mean to tell the truth?” His answer has more to do with the context and kinds of relationships involved than the particular words used.

    Bonhoeffer reminds us that it is our parents who first ask us to be truthful. While we are young children, they demand that we tell them the truth—the literal truth. When I ask my child, “Did you steal that cookie?” I do not want him to reply, “Well, Mum, it depends on what you mean by 'steal.' ”

    But it is also perfectly normal and correct, Bonhoeffer argues, that the kind of literal truthfulness required of children is not always mirrored back from parent to child. Parents tell their children the truth in different ways. Sometimes it is told literally. But other times parents must reveal the world in a way appropriate to the child's age and experience. Say I tell my child, “If you put your tooth under your pillow, the Tooth Fairy will leave you some money.” Am I telling him the truth? No. Not in terms of what one might call material reality. But I keep up the legend of the Tooth Fairy as a means of encouraging imagination, creativity and fun—things I think ought to be part of any child's life.
    How much control should I have over what “truth” is known about me? How much say should I have over what truth is kept from me?

    So telling the truth means different things depending on who is doing the telling and who is doing the questioning, as well as the circumstances of the questioning. There comes a time when all kids “outgrow” the Tooth Fairy. But if I limited my kids to the strictures of material reality, I would only be offering them what Bonhoeffer calls “the appearance of truth.” Hmm. The appearance of truth. That sounds an awful lot like what Lehman Brothers offered all of us prior to the 2008 stock market collapse.

    Still, I know telling the truth isn't very easy in the digital age. I want to offer my parents, who live thousands of kilometres away, photos of their grandchildren. I want them to be able to share them with their friends. I suppose I want to offer them the opportunity to really feel like grandparents, which is true to what they are. But I know that putting photos online creates multiple opportunities for our children's lives to be exposed to the wrong people. What do you think? Am I being overcautious?

    Grace and peace,



    I don't think it is simply a matter of caution. Of course, it is that. You have to be concerned about what harm your children could come to. But there is also the matter of control. Who has a right to control what is revealed? Who determines how wide the circle of knowledge is?

    What Bonhoeffer says is insightful. Thank you for that. But it is not just the subtlety of what constitutes truth-telling that is at issue. In your illustration, you are the parent, and your child is your child. You get to decide how to disclose the truth about his tooth loss. You also get to decide how much he knows about your personal lives. He does not have the same options.

    I think that gets at questions that are troubling a lot of us. How much control should I have over what “truth” (material or imaginative) is known about me? How much say should I have over what truth is kept from me?

    The Book of Common Prayer contains this great prayer: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden….” Sometimes the thought of God's omniscience takes my breath away. God knows it all. God can see it all. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is hidden from God. What fools Adam and Eve were to think they could hide. No one can control what God knows.

    These are not always comforting thoughts. It is only the realization that God is love that allays my fright of God's information access.

    I have no similar expectation that the police or Facebook users or government databanks or credit-card companies love me. Which is one reason I am fearful and angry at what they can know about me without my even knowing they know. And it is one reason I am happy to see courts and legislators imposing limits. Have you been following that?

    Grace and peace,



    Among the number of recent privacy rulings, the most interesting to me is the “right to be forgotten” law enacted by the European Union. Essentially, people can make a claim to have information about them removed from Internet search-engine results if that information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” As the media report it, what the law really ensures is that people will be able to avoid embarrassing episodes of their past. None of those three criteria would necessarily have helped Rehtaeh Parsons. Yet if anyone deserved to have her digital life erased, it was Rehtaeh.

    There's a host of reasons to regard this law as a feeble attempt to keep up with technology and privacy issues. As Google slowly begins following up on information removal requests, the ruling has prompted the response, “Are we rewriting history?”

    In reading your response, my thoughts went to the Johannine stories of Jesus' encounters with the Samaritan woman (see John 4:1-42) and the adulterous woman about to be stoned by religious leaders (see John 8:1-11). In both cases, Jesus knows all about their sinful histories. He is both loving and forgiving. But he doesn't rewrite their histories. Rather, Scripture conveys that their histories no longer matter.

    I also thought of Paul. He recounts his own sins and calls himself the most sinful of all. He doesn't need a right to be forgotten. What matters to him is that Jesus showed him mercy and allowed him to be an example for others who would seek eternal life.

    It's probably misleading to think of Christian saints as people who were so close to God that they lived near-perfect lives, needing very little to be struck from their records. In a world with data protection laws that don't have a preferential option for the exploited, I'm not certain ordinary people like Parsons will ever escape their virtual identities. But perhaps the church can learn better purposes for technology use. Material for another discussion?

    Grace and peace,


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