Privacy In The Age Of Big Brother
These days, our lives are watched by cameras inside buildings, and on the street. Computer networks exchange information about us. Phone companies can track us through our mobile phones. In a world like this, is there any such thing as real privacy?
One dictionary defines privacy as, 'freedom from undesirable intrusions and especially publicity.' Privacy is a measure of our freedom. When we lose our privacy to any significant degree, we're open to control by outside forces.
Democracies need surveillance if they are to function as free societies. Genuine crimes need to be detected and punished. If we're going to have a safe and lawful society, we will need to compromise some of our privacy -- that's a price most people are willing to pay.
But governments by their very nature evolve and grow. When a government has reached the limit of the geographical area it can control, it must expand in another direction. There's only way one for that to happen: the government must increase its control over the people it already covers.
Recently, there's been a shift in many countries from limited surveillance to mass surveillance of whole populations. Modern advances in 'smart' ID cards, CCTV, computer intercept systems and biometrics have made this even easier for governments to do.
Technologies that start out serving us well can easily be put to sinister uses. Some years ago, cameras manufactured in the UK were placed in Tianemman Square to help traffic control. When the student demonstrations occurred there, the cameras were turned on the protesters. Their pictures were broadcast on TV so that they could be identified and turned in to the police.
The companies for which we work also affect the level of privacy in our lives. More and more companies are tracking Internet use by their employees, or keeping an eye on them through CCTV. Some companies tap office phones and monitor corporate e-mails sent through their systems.
Of course, some workplace surveillance is appropriate - to prevent the spread corporate espionage, or the spread of pornographic material, for example. But once the seeds of surveillance are planted in a company, they can be difficult to control. Companies must be regulated by tight government regulation to prevent unnecessary intrusion. At present, these regulations are light.
Most of us are very protective of our privacy these days, yet there are people who seem to thrive on intrusion, like those who offer themselves on the altar of 'reality' TV. While these shows may seem like harmless fun, I think we need to be wary.
As things presently stand, people are willing participants in this deliberately invasive programming. But who's to say that somewhere down the track, when audiences have grown bored with Big Brother, someone might not turn the cameras on people who don't know they're being watched?
The Christian faith says that human rights come ultimately from God -- including the right to make independent, personal and private choices.
Privacy is a fundamental human right because it affects our ability to make choices. Our moral choices shape our destiny, so it's vital that we make righteous choices. This is made harder for us if our freedoms are eroded by outside control.
The Bible places a high value on privacy because it is important to our relationships, too. Healthy relationships are only possible when we choose to open up with other people. If being vulnerable and open are longer a matter of choice, but something foisted upon us, free relationships die.
Privacy protects our relationships from outside interference, too. Marriages, for example, cannot work if couples find themselves living in a fishbowl, where their parents and others can interfere at any time.
Jesus said that, 'There is nothing hidden that will not [one day] be disclosed...' (Matt. 12:2). God sees the very secrets of our hearts, but he doesn't want us in a situation where everyone else can do the same.
God has the power, the capacity, to forgive anything -- anything that we confess to him and from which we willingly turn away. Our fellow human beings, on the other hand, are not always so quick to forgive, or to forget. Privacy allows us to confess to God, to be forgiven and then to get on with life.
The New Testament says that God delegates certain powers to secular authorities so that we can live at peace, with law and order. That power is given for the protection of the populace, but it has limits.
According to the Bible, unbridled human control is at the root of most of our moral, spiritual and social problems. Ever since the original fall, human beings have tried to control things only God can control while abdicating responsibility for things they could change. No human individual or agency must ever try to fill the role that only God is qualified to play.
God wants us to have the freedom to make responsible personal choices that bring his favour into our lives. We should guard our personal privacy jealously, refusing to give up anything that will interfere with our capacity to make God-pleasing choices.
© Mal Fletcher 2003