A Christian’s Guide to Privacy and Technology (Part 1)

In All Things New’s recent podcast episode, Paul Taylor and Jason Lee from the NEM Foundation touched on privacy issues for blockchain technology. I was particularly struck by a question that Jason asked Paul during a segment of the conversation. “As a teaching pastor […] in the Silicon Valley, what is your congregation like in terms of their understanding of technology and privacy?”

Paul’s response was also noteworthy. “I don’t think we’ve thought a lot about that, but I suspect […] there’s a deeper layer to explore.”

After thinking more about this exchange, I realized that now was the time to explore that deeper layer. 

Privacy and technology in the time of COVID-19

As the world fights to stop the spread of COVID-19, public health has turned to technology for solutions. Many countries in Asia, for example, are using smartphone-based tracking for contact tracing (the process of identifying people who were near an infected individual to help them get tested or self-isolate). In the U.S., Google and Apple also recently released a tool for digital contact tracing, and other companies are building disease surveillance apps for the workplace. 

Although monitoring and collecting people’s personal information through technology is not new, the COVID-19 crisis ushers the possibility of more invasive surveillance that can further jeopardize people’s right to privacy.

At such a key moment for privacy and technology, it’s important that Christians engage and take the time to understand how faith informs the way we think about privacy–both in this crisis and in a post-pandemic world.

Privacy and the Bible 101

The following question summarizes the issue at hand: “What is the theological basis for the right to privacy–particularly in our current context involving technology and the public good?”

To start, I will focus on the first half of the issue, namely the theology of privacy. It is helpful to define what I mean by privacy. According to Merriam Webster, privacy is “freedom from unauthorized intrusion.” In other words, privacy grants people the right to protect what they deem should be protected and shield it from public view. Additionally, while “right to privacy” is a specific phrase with legal implications, I will be discussing it more broadly as a concept.

Given the above definition of privacy, we can categorize it into three types1:

  1. Physical, or privacy of our bodies 
  2. Property, or privacy of our possessions 
  3. Abstract, or privacy of our identity, e.g. personal information 

Now what does the Bible say about each of these types of privacy? 

The Bible acknowledges the significance of physical privacy, specifically clothing, to protect an individual’s body. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sin, God sacrifices an animal to cover them with garments of skins–a gesture of love that transcends Adam and Eve’s own efforts to cover their nakedness with fig leaves. Additionally, in Genesis 9, Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth walk backwards to avoid seeing their father naked and cover him in an act of respect.  

With respect to property privacy, both the Old and New Testament condemn stealing or damaging others’ possessions. One of the Ten Commandments forbids stealing, and Exodus 22 delineates specific laws that protect one’s personal property against theft and vandalism. In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal,” encouraging work that contributes to others’ well-being. 

The last type–abstract privacy–is a bit tricky to tease apart. Abstract privacy, also referred to as privacy of identity, relates to protecting information that constitutes the intangible part of the self. As the name suggests, this type encompasses more abstract ideas, like our personal information and actions. The Bible speaks primarily about protecting others’ abstract privacy by warning against gossiping (Pro. 20:19, 1 Tim. 5:13, 2 Th. 3:11).

However, it doesn’t explicitly teach us about how we protect and use the kind of abstract privacy we have now, particularly in the digital sphere. This is expected because of the contextual nature of privacy. The concept of privacy is fluid and reflects social norms, so the way we understand it today is very different from that in ancient times. Even though the Bible doesn’t speak directly about our kind of privacy–a seemingly modern notion2–we can still use biblical principles to guide our thinking and understanding for our context. 

Building a theological framework

How can we then understand modern privacy of identity from a theological perspective? To answer that question, we should unpack the theology of our value as human beings–which brings us back to the biblical creation story: 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. -Genesis 1:26-27

From this passage, we observe two key concepts relevant to the discussion: 

  1. We are uniquely created by God. The Scriptures speak of a loving God who created an abundance of diversity yet at the same time shows care and attention to every part of his creation. With respect to mankind, the psalmist proclaims the glory of God’s work and asks, “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:3-4). God’s lavish attention to every person, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14), points to a Creator who values uniqueness.
  2. We are created in His image. While the phrase “created in His image” has many interpretations, the interpretation that I will use is that humans take on aspects of God’s attributes. God is described in the Bible as being sacred and worthy of respect. In a similar way, people are endowed with dignity, a gift and grace from God. 

So how do these two theological concepts relate to the idea of privacy of identity? With respect to 1), privacy of identity involves personal information, the set of identifiers that define who a person is legally, financially, and in other ways. In theological terms, personal information symbolizes the uniqueness of being created by God. 

However, uniqueness alone does not automatically guarantee us the right to privacy. Rather, it must be combined with the concept of dignity from 2). In creating us in His image, God conferred to each of us the gift of dignity. Similar to how we possess property rights or cover our physical bodies to avoid shame, our God-endowed dignity allows us to protect that which makes us uniquely ourselves, including our personal information. In fact, this is the same principle that underlies the biblical admonition not to gossip, an act that ultimately deprives an individual of their dignity and harms their identity. 

If we acknowledge that every person is created uniquely by God and made in His image, the biblical creation story should encourage us to respect personal information as something inherently human and valuable. Furthermore, even though privacy of identity seems strongly embedded in modern thought and political jargon, it is grounded in Scripture and ultimately connected with our identity as God’s creation. 

Applying the theological framework

Now that I’ve developed a theological understanding of privacy of identity, we should revisit and focus on the second half of the original issue. “What is the theological basis for the right to privacy–particularly in our current context involving technology and the public good?”

In the ongoing crisis, countries all over the world are using technology, such as digital contact tracing tools, to collect personal information–with the goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19. This presents an ethical dilemma for those creating and using this kind of technology. How can both groups protect the individual’s right to privacy while preserving as many lives as possible? 

We can answer this question by turning to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:39). As creators and end-users navigate difficult ethical challenges–entangled by social, environmental, biological complexities–both groups should carefully consider how their actions impact others’ privacy, knowing that it is a valuable gift. 

Creators should be aware that privacy has the potential of being abused or mistreated. They should prioritize people’s safety since personal information can be used in harmful ways, such as discrimination and violence. Protecting personal information thus does not obscure truth but upholds the well-being of each individual. 

With respect to end-users, Christians ultimately believe that the right to privacy is a gift among many other forms of God’s grace to us. As stewards of God’s gifts, people may be ethically mandated to different levels of sacrifice for the greater good. Therefore, they may be called to give up their own right to privacy in different ways that different circumstances require. 

These insights serve as the foundation for deeper theological discussion. In my next post, I will build on this section and discuss how creators and end-users can love their neighbor in more depth. 

The future of theology, privacy, and technology

One of the striking things about the COVID-19 crisis is how much it has changed and will change the world. With so many countries using technology for public health, ethical issues around individual privacy have become more pressing. 

At the cusp of this new era, Christians have the opportunity and responsibility to reflect on the ways theology relates to privacy and technology. Knowing that privacy is a God-given gift, we should examine how technology creators and end-users can protect and use this gift well. For creators, how can they establish good privacy standards that address the needs of each individual and society as a whole? And for end-users, how can they assert the right to privacy but also consider the well-being of others in their communities? 

I’ve only scratched the surface of a complex, daunting topic of discussion. If we as Christians continue to delve courageously into this challenging topic, we will better understand how faith speaks into the sociocultural issues of our time.  

And I’m confident that the next time around, we can give Jason a different answer.

Footnotes

1In reality, these types are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but for clarity of the argument, I have simplified them into distinct categories.

2To learn more about the evolution of modern privacy, please refer to this article: “History of Privacy”.

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