At the bottom of this post is a 2010 CBS news story reporting hat anything you’ve copied on a digital copier going back years is stored on a hard drive inside the copier. These drives are evidently so large that they can store more than 20,000 documents and hundreds of thousands of pages.
Hence if you have ever photocopied personal materials (e.g., social security numbers, checking info, personal data) it is likely 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; I recommend you watch it and share it with 500 of your closest friends!
When it comes to privacy there are problems in two different senses.
The first is the usual one: the erosion of privacy we have come to expect in this day and age. Our data is out there in cyberspace and can too easily be intercepted. GPS devices track our whereabouts, Internet browsing history is retained, and “cookies” on our computer track our habits. YouTube and our cable boxes faithfully record our viewing habits. And, as you can see in the video below, just about everything we have ever copied on any copier built after 2002 is dutifully saved. I’m not sure why this is done, but the information is there.
In many ways our life is an open book. In some ways having our information out there is a convenience. In other ways, though, it is alarming and arouses suspicion. There is less and less privacy each day. And don’t even get me started on those full body scanners at airports!
There is a second, very different sense in which privacy is a problem. In a very important way we must remember that to God, there has never been anything private about our life. He sees everything. He is the searcher of minds and hearts. The Book of Hebrews says, 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 too easily forget the fact that God witnesses everything we do. In school settings I have often reminded students (who are pretending they’ve done nothing wrong), “Now be careful. God is watching and knows everything you do. He also knows if you are lying to me. You might slip something by me but you won’t fool 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 this, but our weak minds forget. And when we do remember our crafty minds try to reinvent God by saying foolish things such as, “God doesn’t mind,” or “God understands,” or “God doesn’t punish.”
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 medicinal about recognizing the presence of God. The more we experience that God is present and watching, the more we accept Him on His own terms; we do not try to reinvent Him. The 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.
Frankly, acknowledging the fact that not only is God watching us but others are as well, can have a positive effect. We may not approve of the fact that others might be watching us, but in the end it can be helpful. A few examples might help illustrate what I mean.
- Internet Pornography – As a confessor, I increasingly hear the sin of Internet pornography confessed. One of the things I try to remind penitents of is the fact that when they are on the Internet they are essentially out in public with a name tag on. All of their browsing habits are stored on their own computers, on the sites they visit, and in the browsing engine they use. If they think they are 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 I’m surfing the Internet.
- Cable TV – Those boxes send data about what I watch and for how long back to the cable company. My viewing habits are known to those who can 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.
- E-mail, Facebook, blogs, etc. – 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 the information will remain on servers for potentially a very long time. Be very careful what you say, because no matter how private you may think it is, it is not. You are always within earshot of some server that 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 (to paraphrase Luke 12:3). I may not like that what I send or post is ultimately public, but in the end it makes me more careful about what I say and type.
- Accountability – As a priest, I think it is important to live a rather transparent life. I very rarely just slip away from the rectory. I almost 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 overall I make it a rule to account for my whereabouts. I also usually wear my clerical attire (except on a day off). There are certainly times when I expect the rectory to be a private home (after 9 PM), but even then I live with three other priests. And though we have separate apartments, the communal quality of the rectory provides a salutary sort of accountability in terms of personal behavior.
What I am ultimately saying is that demanding too much privacy can also be a problem. In the end, the Lord intends for us to live in community, such that we are accountable to others. Some degree of accountability and transparency is both helpful to 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 be respected.
However, we should also remember that some demands for privacy are unrealistic. At some point, we simply need to accept that the being online is the same as being out 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. Certainly 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 life and thus being aware when we are in public is important. In fact, you are in public right now because you are online.
Before commenting, please take a few minutes and watch this video. (And never sell your copier without insisting that you be permitted to destroy the information on the hard drive!) This report was a real eye-opener and will make me more cautious about how, when, and where I copy confidential documents and personal information.