None of your business: Privacy, Anonymity and Surveillance

by Guy Brandon, 6 October 2014

Nothing to see here

Privacy and anonymity are in the public eye as never before thanks to revelations about mass surveillance and large-scale harvesting of personal data. How, as Christians, should we respond to the issues this raises?

Reports of the extent of the surveillance carried out by government bodies and other organisations have recently come to the fore. In June last year the Guardian published information obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that GCHQ was accessing enormous quantities of personal information – emails, Facebook posts, internet histories and phone calls – and sharing it with the NSA, ‘all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate’.

Although this has been conducted in the name of security, it constitutes what Snowden calls ‘the largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history’. As Christians, how should we approach these issues?

Privacy vs anonymity

Privacy and anonymity are two related but distinct matters. Privacy is the ability to do something away from the eyes of others, such as closing the curtains at home or holding a private conversation with another person. Everyone has some need for privacy, and it this usually has nothing to do with illegal activity. Anonymity means being able to do something publicly, without people knowing who is doing it – voting, whistleblowing, paying for something in cash or sealing a letter in an envelope being some examples.

These values run to the heart of a free and democratic society, which is why the right to privacy is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet they must also be balanced with our need for security. If a terrorist cell is planning an attack, we need the tools and abilities to stop them. (Terrorists and criminals who attack our ‘free’ society forfeit their own freedoms.) Clearly, both privacy and anonymity make this harder.

Privacy and the Bible

For a brief work-in-progress piece of thinking like this, it is impossible to do full justice to the biblical approach to privacy and anonymity. Proof texting is also easy; one of the most common counter-arguments to concerns about surveillance is ‘If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about’, and the Bible is full of warnings against hidden misdeeds and exhortations to integrity – and, unlike even the most intrusive surveillance practices, God sees absolutely everything. ‘For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.’ (Luke 8:17) ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19) ‘All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ (Matthew 5:37)

But our discomfort around surveillance doesn’t just raise questions about our own integrity. It raises them about our government’s.

The surveillance state (or corporation – an increasing amount of data mining is carried out by large companies) is one that has both the will and the substantial resources necessary for the task. This inherently represents an enormous centralisation of power.

The Bible warns against the Big State, due to the fact that centralised power is prone to corruption and the abuse of those whose interests it is supposed to serve. It is also beyond accountability. The Israelites experienced the harsh realities of such asymmetric power in Egypt, and later at the hands of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires.

Of course, this wariness of centralisation has to be balanced with the needs of those agencies tasked with protecting us from organised crime and terrorist plots. This is not a hypothetical problem: surveillance genuinely does contribute to keeping us safer. There is, however, a sinister side to it.

Surveillance and control

One of the issues is the sheer level of surveillance under which we live. A breathtaking amount of data is gathered on almost all aspects of citizens’ lives – not just by The Powers That Be, but by companies and organisations who can use it to their advantage. (Incidentally, the phrase ‘The Powers That Be’, commonly used today of political authorities, was first used of God by William Tyndale in his 1526 translation of the New Testament – see Romans 13:11.) A recent BBC documentary and article highlighted this side-effect. ‘Scientists are growing increasingly concerned about the way such information could be used to predict our behaviour and from that, be used as a form of control. The power of that data to predict and analyse what we’re going to do is very, very high… And giving that power to somebody else, regardless of the original or stated intentions, is very worrying.’

In the Cambridge Paper Covert Power: Unmasking the world of witchcraft, Jonathan Burnside argues that the essence of witchcraft is control and manipulation. In traditional witchcraft, this takes the form of communing with spiritual powers to bring about the desired ends. Arguably a modern-day secular analogue of such practices is the implicit coercion and manipulation of behaviour brought about by gathering and exploiting personal information. The forms this takes might include spin doctoring, subliminal advertising, identity theft, communication or psychological management techniques, or even the worldviews tacitly assumed and consumed in the storylines of films and TV programmes.

Once you know enough about a person you can predict with a frightening degree of accuracy how they will behave – where they go, the people they interact with, the kind of things they buy and how they will respond to different circumstances. It’s not hard to see why intrusive surveillance is such a big business, or why governments might be interested to know what their citizens are getting up to. Knowledge truly is power.

Reclaiming privacy

As with all matters of government, there is a fine line to tread here. Romans 13:1-7 tells us not to rebel against authority. However, this passage, as well as Jesus’ famous reply to the Pharisees in Mark 12:17, suggests that there must be limits to our allegiance to the state when it conflicts with our loyalty to God: we are to render unto Caesar (only) what is Caesar’s.

There is also the question of trust. We all have to trust others, to some extent, in order to live. Without suggesting a direction of causality, it seems that increasing surveillance goes hand-in-hand with decreasing trust in each other – and greater trust in technology to keep us safe. We don’t need to know our neighbour, let alone love them, if the state is doing the job for us.

One response to the issue should be to campaign to rebalance power away from the state and large corporations towards citizens and smaller, local groups. At the same time, one of the obvious solutions to the present reality of mass surveillance is the widespread use of better security practices (online and offline) and strong encryption as standard in all kinds of internet traffic – something that whistleblower Edward Snowden has called the ‘defence against the dark arts for the digital realm’. Relatively easy to implement, this makes it either extremely difficult or prohibitively expensive for third parties to harvest our data and read our communications. (Does this constitute rebellion against the state? Not, it seems, if it is not illegal – which it is not.)

We should not be messianic about technology. A techno-fix to a problem that is fundamentally about human behaviour is a workaround, at best. The ideal is for a society in which powerful parties do not constantly gather information with which to predict and manipulate our behaviour. In the meantime, it is reasonable to seek to live in a world in which they cannot.

 

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Category: Reports and Articles

October, 2014

Comments (1)

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  1. Bex Lewis says:

    See Pete Phillips recent paper on privacy, commissioned by The Methodist Church, https://www.dur.ac.uk/codec/publications/.

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