Lost in Translation: Our rights – when tech passes policy

I have a slightly unusual obsession for knowledge – I even have a book about the essential facts of knowledge at my desk I read because of the joy I get from knowing a little bit about everything (but, unfortunately, not much about anything). A longing for knowledge in general is typically a good thing. However, when it causes diplomatic outcries from the world’s political leaders, we know something might be off.

As mentioned in the article on page 3, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was outraged to discover U.S. operatives were spying on her personal conversations. But she wasn’t the only person our government targeted — reports were released showing the NSA regularly records thousands of conversations a day. And in the words of Joel Brenner, the agency’s former inspector general, they aren’t achieving much for it.

The greed of the NSA for knowledge about the inner workings of other governments, for the purpose of being ready for anything, is causing national uproar. Many Americans are claiming their privacy is being severely violated.

But this right to informational privacy is almost entirely a Western ideal. Many languages don’t even have a word for privacy (such as Russian and Indonesian) as it’s not as valued in those cultures.

In America, this Western ideal of privacy traces back to our founding fathers. On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights granted Americans privacy as a basic governmental right. The fourth amendment prevents the government from performing a search of your person or personal property without a warrant.

Personal information online, however, doesn’t yet have any such rules, as technology exploiting privacy has outrun the policy. Nevertheless, many believe the government’s use of personal information found digitally — their emails, their posts, even their texts and phone calls – is still a violation of the policies that exist.

In our world of growing efficiency, millions of data files with personal information can be searched within seconds. This can be exploited for malicious purposes, yes, but it also allows our current governments and organizations to help as many people as possible with the resources at their disposal.

Please understand I’m not talking about the American life transforming into the all-controlling government of George Orwell’s “1984” or Dave Egger’s “The Circle” — but it’s not that farfetched to think everything shared online will one day be used for companies’ data mining without the same results.

It’s probably time for the NSA to better define their own policies, but I’d like to propose it’s also time for us to consider our own defense of privacy. Is privacy something  we can defend? Is it even worth the effort? As Christians, our lives should be transparently Christ. We should be answerable to other Christians, and therefore less worried about our own individual privacy.

Eric Schmidt, former executive of Google, put it another way: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

At the core, privacy remains an issue about revealing oneself. God knows every minute detail about us — there’s not much privacy in that. As Hebrews 4:13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

I’m not saying this Scripture is telling you to give up privacy, but it does speak something to the way we protect our secrets and personal lives.


This piece is considered a “standard” column in our print edition.
Lost in Translation: Introspection into our misconceptions and broken connections
by Isaac Wilson, editor-in-chief

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