Some Thoughts on Privacy – God is Watching (and so are many others)

At the bottom of this post is an older 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 if you never saw it, and I recommend you watch it and share it with 500 of your closest friends.

When we come to privacy there are a number of problems. In particular privacy is a problem 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 nosy 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 is 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 don’t even get me started about 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. Yes, 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Likewise 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.
  4. 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.

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.

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.

7 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Privacy – God is Watching (and so are many others)”

  1. I agree with everything stated. I was taught as soon as I was allowed on the internet as a kid to be careful with what I type to friends, post on websites such as Facebook, or which sites I view. I am glad my parents enforced that policy because I see so many people today that use Facebook or blogs as a diary of sorts. I’ve seen how it impacts jobs and even helps catch criminals. And how do I see it? Because people are blatant enough to post details of their job, and on the news some criminals got caught simply because of Facebook posts detailing their criminal activities. Even if there is a law out stating that Facebook can not be used against you in applying for a job or getting fired from a job, I don’t believe that law is foolproof. Like you said, being careful and thinking about everything before you post it is the best policy. When in doubt, don’t post.

  2. Even without ‘big-brother’ servers keeping eternal watch, I think it pays to be careful even with something as simple as an email or an sms/text message sent to a friend, particularly if you’re saying something harsh about someone else. Would you like what you’ve just written to be read by another? What if your friend makes a mistake and forwards your message? What if you goof up and send it to the wrong person?

    If basic Christian charity doesn’t incline you to watch what you write, simple prudence should!

  3. “He who separates himself seeks his own desire, He quarrels against all sound wisdom. A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind. ”
    Proverbs 18:1,2

    Excellent, Msgr. Thanks so much!

  4. The proverb Wendy posted reminds me of all my own foolishness, a supply that at times seems endless, and I console myself with the thought that at least I have gotten into the habit of text messaging.

  5. We also must remember that on earth we are in, as it were, a giant stadium with the angels and the saints in the stands in heaven seeing everything that we do – cf. Hebrews 12:1

  6. This brings light to all of the Lord Jesus Christ’s teachings about how we should treat each other and about humility, and staying true to God’s Laws and holding fast to what is true and good.

    As an evangelist speaks about what God wants revealed, we all still have a duty to speak the “mind of the Lord” as much as we are graced to do so, and without fear, but with prudence.

  7. Living in Los Angeles and Orange County area, I just purchased a very new copier. Had a Ricoh at BJs at a great price, and have to confess, until I just read these pages, never really knew just what the scanner thing did…I recognize, sad right? Well, I should give that this try! Thanks.

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