The Problem of Privacy: God is Watching….And So Are Many Others!

At the bottom of this post is a remarkable video from CBS news that indicates that if you have or use a digital copier, everything you have copied on it going back years is stored on a hard drive in the copier. The drive is evidently so large in them that they can store over 20,000 documents and hundreds of thousands of pages. Hence if you have ever photocopied personal materials containing social security numbers, checking info, personal data, etc, it is on that hard drive. The CBS news crew showed how easy it is to remove the hard drive and download its contents. It’s a stunning little segment and I recommend you watch it and share it with 500 of your closest friends.

Now I have titled this blog post the “Problem of Privacy”  and I mean it in two senses.

The first is the usual sense that many of us are experiencing something of an erosion in the privacy we have come to expect. Our data is out there in cyberspace and can too easily be intercepted by the nosey and the criminal. GPS devices help track our whereabouts, Internet browsing habits are retained at search engines, “cookies” in our computer also track our habits.  YouTube faithfully records our viewing habits and do our cable boxes. And,  as you can see in the video below,  just about everything we have ever copied on any copier built after 2002 in dutifully recorded and kept. Why I am not sure, but it’s there for the viewing. In many ways our life is an open book. In some ways having our info out there is a convenience. In other ways we are alarmed and suspicious. But in this sense privacy has become a problem. There is less and less of it each day. And look out, those full body scanners on the way at airports.

There is a second sense however in which I use the the phrase the “Problem of Privacy.” In a very important way we must remember that there has never been anything private about our life to God. He sees everything. He is the searcher of minds and hearts. The Book of Hebrews says that to him everything lies naked and exposed (Heb 4:13). No thought, deliberation or action of ours is hidden from God.

One of the problems of the modern age is that we are too easily forgetful of the fact that God witnesses everything we do. In school settings I have often reminded students pretending they had done nothing wrong: “Now be careful! God is watching and he knows everything you do. He also knows if you are lying to me! You might get away with something with me but you won’t avoid God!” But it is not only children who need to be reminded of this. God sees and knows everything we think and do. In this sense there is no privacy. God is watching. Deep down we know but our weak minds forget. And when we do remember our crafty minds try to reinvent God by saying dumb things like, “God doesn’t  mind” or “God understands”  or “God will not punish.”

So, absolute privacy is an illusion. We may well be able to carve out some privacy from one another and well we should. But we should not seek privacy from God nor can we. There is something increasingly medicinal about practicing the presence of God. The more we experience that God is present and watching the more we accept him on his own terms and do not try to reinvent him, them more we do this the more our behavior can be reformed. A little salutary fear can be medicinal while we wait for the more perfect motive of love to drive out sin.

And, frankly too, acknowledging that not only is God watching but others are too can also have some good effects. We may not approve of  their ability to see us, but in the end it can help to remember that they do. A few examples might help illustrate what I mean.

  1. Internet Porn – As a confessor the sin of Internet pornography has increasingly found its way into the confessions I hear. One of the things I try to remind penitents of is the fact that when they are on the Internet they are out in public with a name tag on. All their browsing habits are stored both on their own computers and out at the sites they visit and the  browsing engines they use. If they think they are  merely in the privacy of their own room they ought to think again. Personally, this knowledge keeps me far away from bad sites of any kind on the Internet. There is a kind of salutary fear in knowing that I am out in public when on-line. The same is true for cable TV. Those boxes send data  about what I watch and how long,  back to the Cable company. My browsing and viewing habits are known to those who might wish to find them. Frankly it keeps me out of trouble. I hope other virtues do as well, but remembering that I am in public is very helpful.
  2. The same is true for e-mail and other forms of Internet communication such as face book and blogging. Once you press send, or publish, you’ve just made history. The contents of what you have said are out there to stay. You may delete it, but it will stay as data on servers for as long as the sun shall shine. Be very careful what you say for no matter how private you may think it is, it is not. You are always in earshot of some server which loves to keep your data. What you type in the darkness will be brought to light and what you post in secret will shouted from the housetop. Here too I am assisted by this fact. I may not like that what I send or post is ultimately public. But in the end it makes me careful about what I say or type.
  3. Accountability has also been a help in my life. As a priest I think it is important to live a rather transparent life. I almost never just slip away from the rectory. I always tell someone on the staff where I am going, at least generally and when I expect to return. I am a public figure. Sure I have some privacy up in my rectory suite but over all I make it a rule to account for my whereabouts. I also usually wear my clerical attire as I go about (except on a day off). There are surely times when I expect the rectory to be a private home (after 9pm) but here too I live with three other priests and though we have our separate apartments, the communal quality of the rectory also provides a salutary kind of accountability in terms of personal behavior.

What I am ultimately saying is that too much demand for privacy can also be a problem. In the end the Lord intends for us to live in community where we are accountable to others. Some degree of accountability and transparency is helpful and necessary for us. It is clear that there are significant problems with the erosion of our privacy today. We ought to continue to insist that proper boundaries should be respected. However we should also remember that some demands for privacy are unrealistic. At some level we simply need to accept that the being online is the same as being in public with your name tag on. That’s just the way it is, so behave yourself. You might change your name on-line but guess what, it’s really those little numbers that identify you. Mine are: 76.1**.3*.6*5 (I have put asterisks as a form of non-disclosure there are acutal numbers in the place of them). Where-ever I go those little numbers say it’s me even if I lie about the fact that its me. Now we may lament this but I think it is better simply to say, when I am on-line I am in public with a name tag on. There is nothing private about Internet or e-mail or texting or anything else that uses the public airways, or communication lines. That’s just the way it is and knowing this can be salutary.

Finding the proper balance between our public and private lives can be difficult. Surely privacy is to be insisted upon in many cases. But it is also true that overly expansive  assumptions of privacy are neither possible nor always healthy. Being in public will always be a necessary part of our life and being aware when we are in public is important.  You are in public right now because you are on-line.

OK, as usual you all can help by making distinctions, giving examples, and delivering rebuttals.

Before you comment take a few minutes to watch this video. And never sell your copier again without insisting that you be able to destroy the hard drive. This report was a real eye-opener and will make me wary of how and when I copy confidential documents and personal information.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

9 Replies to “The Problem of Privacy: God is Watching….And So Are Many Others!”

  1. I’ve always wondered, Fr, where do you get these pictures and videos that are so appropriate for the post???

      1. Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification. I’m wondering if there are any rules regarding posting pictures taken from the net? Do you need to give credit to the source of the picture/video/etc.? Please don’t take this as an offense, I am just wondering what is the right thing to do if I were to post something online and use pictures/videos/etc. that I found from Google.

        Great post, btw, Fr!

        1. My own understanding of posting pictures it that they are there for the sharing. Those who wish to retain proprietary rights over their photos or videos have several options. 1. They can watermark them and offer to sell the original. 2. They can prevent the cut and paste (right-click) option from working, or 3. they can indicate somewhere near the picture that they do not want the work shared without permission. I am not a lawyer and usage issues will likely get more strict in the future but for now we’re in the wild west when it comes to clear law and order in these matters. Hence unless there is indication otherwise I make free use of materials. Often I don’t even know where the original even came from. Finally, there is my presumption that people use the web to share things and not usually to hide or restrict things. This presumption can be over-ridden by the three matters I list above.

  2. “And never sell your copier again without insisting that you be able to destroy the hard drive.”

    The only scanner/copier I’ve had was malfunctioning so badly that its demise came in the style of the one from “Office Space.”

    I will say that it’s been a near-constant frustration to me of counseling friends who have complained about their “private” info being “stolen” from the internet (often, from facebook, myspace, and other similar sites). You don’t put information on the internet to keep it private or safe: the internet was developed to spread information, not to hide it.

  3. Radical privacy leads to tolerance of evil.

    Rational privacy leads to respect of persons.

  4. Dear Monsignor,
    Thank you for reminding us that God is always there. Sometimes we too easily forget.
    As for copy machines, what you say may apply to digital models, but certainly not to the
    run-of-the-mill copier at the drug store, or for that matter, at the copy center.
    Near the end of my active working life, I was a “key op” in a copy center and a customer insisted that I get rid of “that box in the bottom of the machine so that the FBI could not come in that evening and read what he’d had copied.” Neither I nor the copy machine company tech had ever seen such a box. And frankly, those of us running the public’s copies don’t have time to read everything, sometimes at 135 pages per minute! As I recall, the very serious customer concerned about FBI snooping had a couple of pages of forgettable poetry copied.
    When getting rid of any “modern convenience” with a built-in memory. it is probably a good idea to destroy that piece of it, because things like Social Security numbers do not need to be available to just anyone.

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