Outside our departmental office, we have a waiting area where eight or nine students will often be sitting. It is like a doctor’s waiting room but there are no magazines. I usually see only a row of heads, bent (almost as if they are in prayer) over smart phone screens. The school has had to add multiple electrical outlets in the atrium, where students sit to study, so they can keep their laptops, tablets and smartphones charged. We live in a world in which an almost seamless electronic network is binding us all together.
People are connected to the World Wide Web, to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and to other networks. One consequence of this hyper-connected universe is that information about us is available to many others. The privacy issue raised by Cambridge Analytica in recent elections about the use of personal information on Facebook is just one recent example of the use and abuse of this technology. The targeted false news claims made by Russian interests in elections is a concern to all democracies. And what do insurance companies and employers know about us that can affect our future careers and our ability to be insured? Privacy is difficult to control in this interconnected world.
Steeped in love
Scripture clearly teaches that God is intimately aware of our lives, from before our birth, through our hair loss as we age, on to our ultimate death (Ps. 139, Matt. 10:30). We have no privacy before God. Cambridge Analytica’s ability to understand and predict our behaviour is nothing beside God’s knowledge of our sins, our motivations, and our good behaviours. So why are we concerned about privacy among our fellow humans, when we do not have privacy before God?
The difference, for Christians, between the knowledge held in the mind of God and the data vaults of Cambridge Analytica is that God’s knowledge is bound by and steeped in love. God gave himself in the person of Jesus to redeem creation. As followers of Jesus we know that ultimately all things work for our good (Rom. 8:28); this is our faith even in times when we cannot see clearly through the pain we experience. In stark contrast, the behaviours of human agencies and companies are largely motivated by self-interest, by a desire to use their knowledge of us for their own benefit. God’s concern is selfless to his creation at his cost, while human interests are mostly selfish and taken at a cost to others.
What, then, is our responsibility as Christians in this information age? The old answer still holds: to behave as God would, using our information to the best interests of our neighbour. We are called to protect the interests of others and not use what we know in a way that would harm.
A small example from my scientific world may be helpful. When we collect data on individuals that could potentially have an impact on them, we should go back and share that specific information with our research participants, something that we have not always done. If our data can predict a medical condition, we should alert people who may be prone to this illness. We owe it to our participants not simply to collect our data and leave them, but also to love them and, using our research, to speak to their needs. Sometimes scientists assume that publication of their research fulfills this social responsibility to provide participants with all the necessary information. Christian scientists need to set a higher bar.
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