It’s a personal thing.. but not really

The 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have caused many to reflect on the way surveillance has become a way of life. Photo ID, security cameras, and areas of the commons that are out-of-bounds are now accepted parts of life together, even if they sit uncomfortably with us. Measures to control the pandemic (and consequently, people) have raised fresh concerns about how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice for safety, perceived or otherwise. 
The Triggernometry podcast hosted a noteworthy conversation last week, with Carissa Véliz, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. While a lot of Mad Christians are acutely aware of the pitfalls of online life, Professor Véliz’s insights into surveillance, data collection, and A.I. are well worth considering. 

A lot of people assume that data privacy is a personal thing. But Professor Véliz appeals to listeners to take their privacy very seriously, as there is no guarantee where your data goes. She uses the example of Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy firm involved in the Russian Collusion scandal during the Presidency of Donald Trump. While 270,000 people gave consent for the firm to use their data, Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access through that data to 87 million others. 

Professor Véliz is quick to point out that people who are collecting our data and recording aspects of our lives are rarely driven by malice. They generally just want to sell us things. But she says Big Tech and government are “creating an architecture of surveillance that is so good, if it were taken over [by bad actors], it would be impossible to resist.” As an example, she points to the Netherlands and France in the 1940s. While the Dutch kept exhaustive records about their citizens, France kept minimal data. Professor Véliz believes this accounts for the death toll in the Netherlands, where Nazis were able to easily find most Dutch Jews. 

Professor Véliz has a few interesting suggestions to improve this situation. How about a control group for data collection algorithms before they’re released into the virtual wilds? (An algorithm used by the government of Michigan wrongly accused thousands of welfare fraud, ruining many lives.) On a personal level, Professor Véliz encourages people not to feed the machine by giving over your data unnecessarily. She suggests writing to political representatives and speaking to friends, making them aware that privacy helps us all.

This is not a time to worry, Mad Christian, but a time to be wise. There will be times to go with the flow and times to take a stand. Navigating the landscape of this decaying world, for ourselves and our families is wearisome. Yet this has always been the lot of anyone who would follow after Christ. 

We can trust our Savior, whose eye is on the sparrow and who knew us before we were born. He keeps watch over us in ways that the world can never understand, he discerns our thoughts from afar, better than any algorithm. So we ask for wisdom, knowing God will give us power to stand in the day of evil. Just as Jesus’ words to his disciples were a great comfort to them, we know that he has sent us a Helper, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”

Let’s support each other, in our churches and communities, even more as we look forward to that glorious day. Maranatha!

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