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What the Privacy Debate Reveals About Us

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What the Privacy Debate Reveals About Us

Surging technology and modern realities have converged to alter the current expectation of personal privacy. We can learn from the resulting struggle.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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One hundred thirty-five years later, the incandescent light bulb remains one of the greatest and most world-altering inventions in history. Thomas Edison’s ability to perfect it for practical purposes profoundly changed human interaction and activity. Its development and widespread use brought light into many previously dark places.

Further technological developments have had similar groundbreaking effects and are playing an enormous part in the debate about personal privacy.

At the forefront of this global discussion is the data collection program by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). The actions of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden (a former NSA contractor) brought to light the government’s use of technology that gives it the ability to peer into the private lives of much of the global population.

Technology also empowers businesses. Retailers are cashing in, using certain innovations to survive in the ultra-competitive retail environment. Their goal is to “get inside the heads” of consumers to customize and individualize marketing campaigns.

The average person can also encroach on the privacy of others using a smartphone, and even more with inventions such as Google Glass—a wearable device that allows one to record others without their knowledge.

Technological innovation continues as a “light”—revealing what previously could not be seen.

Interestingly, much of the information used to breach privacy has been provided, wittingly or unwittingly, by the people themselves. PC Magazine explained: “We confess our most private thoughts to search engines, broadcast our location for free drinks, [and] let our cars be tracked for an insurance discount…yet now we find ourselves suddenly howling with outrage over our privacy.”

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Information age: A man accesses a popular social media application through a tablet computer.

Media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff wrote in a CNN article about social media companies collecting data: “We Facebook users have been building a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate researchers have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and for whom we vote. We have been handing over to them vast quantities of information about ourselves and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances. With this information, Facebook and the ‘big data’ research firms purchasing their data predict still more things about us—from our future product purchases…to our likelihood for civil disobedience or even terrorism.”

Divulging key information about ourselves, along with the ability to digitally archive this information for later use, has led to modern conveniences and an improved virtual experience. This stored data, however, linked with smartphones, surveillance systems, and supercomputers, also has the capability to negatively impact our day-to-day lives.

Personal privacy, as it has been known for the majority of history, is endangered. But the debate over it speaks volumes as to what makes man tick.

Which End of the Spectrum?

While personal information is gathered by social media providers, search engine sites, and technology companies, the debate largely centers on the role the government should take.

People want their privacy. Individuals, especially in Western societies, expect and feel they deserve a certain level of confidentiality. As far as they are concerned, the right to disclose certain information, including aspects of their private lives, should be up to them.

The desire for protection and the ability to operate freely and safely in public is, like the desire for privacy, also a powerful motivator. These two goals are often seen as opposite ends of a spectrum: the ability to operate freely versus the desire for privacy and anonymity.

This concept has existed for decades. U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton made the case that dangerous times soften even the staunchest advocates of civil liberties and freedom. The following is an excerpt from his essay in the Federalist papers: “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war…will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free” (emphasis added).

Ironically, these words come from a man who was working to build a nation based on the principles of independence and self-reliance, which had so recently separated from the rule of Great Britain. Hamilton knew the need to feel safe was a powerful incentive—even if it meant giving up some personal privacy.

In the modern age of terror attacks and online warfare, the peoples of the world must make an even more vital choice between national security and personal secrecy.

“Price of Admission”

Proponents of the NSA’s data collection program, specifically the mass accumulation of the numbers from all telephone calls, say that concerns about this data gathering is overblown and not a true reflection of what is actually taking place.

George Frey/Getty Images

Powerful tool: The NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, is viewed by many to represent the incredible surveillance capabilities of the United States government (Oct. 8, 2013).

An opinion piece in The Washington Post expressed this idea: “The widespread fear that NSA is recording the calls themselves is false,’ say the U.S. officials. ‘It would take 400 million people to listen and read’ global traffic, estimates one official—obviously an impossibility.”

Those in favor of data collection conclude that the programs suffer more from negative publicity than real issues. And, the thinking goes, the government does not have to try very hard to obtain most information.

An article in The Christian Science Monitor said that those who support this idea feel that “a large majority of Americans already voluntarily provide extensive information about themselves online. Facebook knows our birthdays, our family members, our friends, and our relatives. Google knows what we like to read, view, and buy. Wireless carriers know where we are at almost every moment. Why shouldn’t the NSA collect all this data so as to create the biggest haystack possible in which to look for the needle of a terrorist suspect?”

Leonid Shtilman, an expert in cybersecurity, added in the same article: “It is somehow strange that certain people feel OK using Gmail, which analyzes every line of your correspondence and responds with appropriate ads, but feel uncomfortable with NSA’s search of billions of emails with the words ‘infidel’ and ‘martyr’ (written in any language).”

He added that most do not understand how important combing the Web is for intelligence agencies, and concluded, “If this country is indeed in a war with extremists (and I believe it is) this is a legitimate action by the government.”

Some NSA officials call their decryption methods the “price of admission for the U.S. to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace” (USA Today). In other words, the present dangers have reached levels at which electronic activities and communications must be monitored.

Government officials further argue that citizens will hold them just as accountable, if not more so, if another attack takes place. Therefore, if they are going to be criticized, it is better to err on the side of gathering more information.

Shifting View

After the government’s collection activities became known, early American polls showed that people generally agreed with Hamilton’s assertion. They viewed the programs as a reasonable sacrifice for the greater good.

Pew Research Center and The Washington Post released a poll in June 2013 that showed 62 percent of Americans agreed that “it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.”

In addition, 56 percent of respondents agreed that “tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism.”

As more has come to light about the degree to which the government has been collecting data, however, people’s view about the program is changing.

A January 2014 poll from Pew and USA Today revealed that support of the government’s program has greatly decreased. According to the numbers, 53 percent of respondents now disapprove of the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as a part of anti-terrorism efforts, with only 40 percent in agreement. Just six months prior, this same question drew a 50 percent to 44 percent approval to disapproval ratio.

While poll results vary depending on how questions are phrased, privacy (at least for now) seems to be emerging as the primary winner over protection.

How Much Is Too Much?

For some time, privacy experts have warned that increased disclosure of personal information represents a slippery slope. They have cautioned that knowing and storing more information on people makes it increasingly difficult to control.

To them, the argument that much of the data was given voluntarily by individuals in the first place should not matter. While information about the private lives of citizens is readily available, that should not automatically mean it should be accessed without notice to the individual.

A person giving their information consciously decides to disclose it and generally does so in exchange for products or services. In this arrangement, privacy proponents point out, the person is aware of who has the information and generally how it is being used. This is much different than another party, unknown to a person, using it for their own purposes.

As certain security measures have become known, the world has been taken aback by the sheer amount of data being accessed. Time explained: “[Disclosures] revealed a massive, secret U.S. national-security state—$52.6 billion a year, with more than 30,000 employees at the NSA alone—struggling to come to grips with this new surveillance potential in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks…The challenge, explained one NSA document made public…was to ‘master global ­networks and handle previously unimagined volumes of raw data for both passive and active collection.’

“So new databases were built, and ground was broken on a massive classified data center in the Utah desert that will need as much as 1.7 million gal. (6.4 million L) of water a day just to keep the computer servers cool. And the data was collected. Since 2006 the U.S. government has gathered and stored transaction records of phone calls made in America. For a time, the government sucked up similar metadata on Internet traffic as well. Cellular location data, mostly from foreign-owned phones, has also been collected, with some 5 billion records a day absorbed by databases that can later be used to reconstruct a person’s movements or find out who joins a meeting behind closed doors.

“One NSA document released…estimated that 99% of the world’s Internet bandwidth in 2002 and 33% of the world’s phone calls in 2003 passed through the U.S.…”

Time continued, stating that this “gold mine” of data was obtained “with or without the cooperation of American companies. The agency hacked overseas cables and satellites and surreptitiously sucked information transiting among foreign cloud servers of U.S. technology companies like Google and Yahoo. It harvested and stored hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant-messaging accounts on services like Yahoo and Facebook. A program called Dishfire sucked up years’ worth of text messages from around the world, and a database by the name of Tracfin captured credit-card transactions.”

Add to these accusations the charge of spying on foreign leaders and the lack of oversight in administering these programs and it becomes quite evident why, both domestically and abroad, individual privacy is a focus for so many.

Privacy proponents have grown in number, with most no longer buying the “security” argument made by the government. They see these programs as jeopardizing the core values of a democratic society.

Foreign and domestic security, however, is not the only front in the privacy debate.

Pursuit of Profits

Today’s customers want discounts and customized service. Companies want profits. This has led to a tidal wave of information sharing that has become a booming business.

Businesses, in many ways, have been trailblazers in the acquisition of personal data, in this case that of current and potential customers. Some of the government’s data collection methods pale in comparison to the extent some retailers are willing to go to acquire and analyze data.

And customers are much more willing than they have been in the past to share their personal information, especially when it is tied to a discount or some other exchange. The company initially gathering this information not only profits directly, but also routinely sells it to other businesses, which creates an additional income stream.

With everything from a discount card on a person’s key chain that tracks buying habits, to the data compiled from information voluntarily given when people sign up for a “free car” drawing, businesses are in hot pursuit of otherwise private information.

Technology is making this transfer of information more seamless.

One emerging trend is based on cellphone technology. An increasing number of retailers now have the ability to track customers anonymously as they walk into their locations. Without any action on the part of the customer, they can track an individual’s movements as long as their cellphone is on. Marketers use this information to count how many people enter a store and to determine things such as which displays attract the most attention and how customers navigate throughout the location.

The next level of disclosure occurs, though, when a customer decides to log onto a retailer’s Wi-Fi signal. Once he connects, he is no longer anonymous and the business then has access to specific details about a person, including demographic information and past purchases. The technology even allows one to receive offers and coupons while in the store.

Retailers are now exploring the use of facial recognition technology to further individualize a person’s shopping experience. This technology has been used in the past to identify shoplifters but may soon be used to pinpoint certain customers, namely those who have previously been identified as willing to spend more money.

Using special cameras and software, once a person enters a given establishment, he is recognized digitally. Without any notice to him, a communication is sent to store staff alerting them of his presence along with a picture and biographical information. This ability to identify and track people anonymously and from a distance worries some who see it as significantly crossing the line of privacy.

An extreme consequence of this technology is the ability to take a photo of an individual unknown to them and match it to an online social media profile photo. This would obviously be a real threat to public anonymity and to privacy overall.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Instant access: An attendee uses a Google Glass during the White House Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. (Dec. 4, 2013).

Google Glass can be used to take pictures secretly and gives this picture-taking ability to anyone and only serves to bolster such concerns. Imagine a person looking over your shoulder and secretly recording your PIN number, or snapping a photo of your credit card.

Convenience aside, privacy advocates are troubled by these trends. What began as the ability to retain and store information has now become an almost uncontrollable problem.

With so many aspects of a person’s life available in electronic form, key information can be stored and later made available to almost anyone. This has severely threatened personal privacy and compromised man’s natural desire to disclose information on his own terms.

“Nature” of Privacy

The deeper we drill into the privacy debate, the more twists and turns appear. For every advocate of requiring the government to fully disclose when and how personal data will be used, there is someone else pointing to how this will jeopardize our domestic security and leave the United States vulnerable to attack.

For every shopper who is crazy about the idea of receiving a discount coupon on his smartphone as he stands in front of a matching store display, there is someone else reminding us of the latest big-box retailer that has to explain to customers why credit card data has been compromised.

The privacy debate may not reveal hard and fast solutions to the overall problem but it does reveal a lot about people.

People are different. Some are tall, others are short. Some are extroverted, others are introverted. Some are more lighthearted, while others are more serious. People are all unique in many ways.

Yet as different as we are, we all share certain attributes. These qualities can be summed up in two words—human nature. The privacy dispute reveals much about this aspect of man’s character.

Understand. Human nature is an overall description of many characteristics that describe mankind in general. Sadly, most of these characteristics are less than noble.

Human beings naturally want things done according to their own terms. Man generally resists change and usually wants to be left to his own devices unless he decides otherwise. These tendencies are evident to varying degrees throughout the privacy discussion.

But there is one trait of human nature that is evident as one wades deeper into the argument and emerges on the other side—mankind has a tendency to hide behavior.

From the government to the people to the businesses, on all sides of the debate, everyone seems to have something to hide. There is an almost innate unwillingness to be open and forthright about certain matters.

Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
Connected: A Wi-Fi logo is pictured during the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain (Feb. 26, 2014).

This statement is not meant to advocate carelessness with information. A suitable level of propriety is appropriate and wise, especially given the need for protection against those out to harm and take advantage of others.

Instead, this assertion is meant to describe a characteristic of mankind that runs much deeper.

Any one discussion about human nature has to start with defining what it is. Unknown to most, the Bible is the handbook for describing human nature—detailing the innermost motives of mankind. For example, Galatians 5:19-21 represents a partial list of human attributes. The description is not pretty.

Jesus Christ explained man’s natural desire to conceal matters: “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that does evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:19-20).

These verses show that man naturally covers behavior that is contrary to the “light,” revealed to be Jesus Christ and the Word of God (John 8:12; Psa. 119:105). Man not only avoids the light, but also hates it.

Similar to a light bulb, the words of the Bible—spiritually speaking—show what was formerly concealed by darkness. Once a person’s deeds have been illuminated and seen in the context of what God expects, they then open themselves up to be “reproved” or held accountable for their choices.

The explosion of immoral (and increasingly amoral) behavior in modern society should make the reason for man’s natural desire for privacy even more evident. (For more information on this subject read our trend report The Immorality Explosion! It paints a picture of how quickly mankind is descending toward absolute disobedience of God’s Law.)

The Bible definition for sin is “the transgression of [God’s] Law” (I John 3:4). Though sin comes in all shapes and sizes, it is summarized by the breaking of the Ten Commandments. It is the transgression of these and other commands of God that represents the “evil deeds” mankind is so eager to keep in the dark.

In the Beginning

The tendency for mankind to hide his behavior is further demonstrated by the actions of the first man ever created, Adam. He was placed in the Garden of Eden and given clear directions by God as to what was expected of him.

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Adam gave no indication that these instructions were not clear to him.

Despite understanding how he was supposed to act, it is well-known that Adam disobeyed what God told him to do. To make matters worse, Scripture reveals that unlike his wife Eve, Adam was not deceived by the serpent (I Tim. 2:14). In other words, his decision was a willing act of disobedience!

After his actions, Adam had every opportunity to admit his mistake and ask for forgiveness. He had the choice to allow the light of God and His instructions to shine on his dark behavior.

But he chose not to go to God. Instead, he began the pattern of hiding by concealing certain aspects of himself. He and his wife sewed fig leaves together and covered their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). Verse 8 makes it clear that both Adam and Eve then attempted to further hide from God “among the trees of the garden” as He called out to them. Man hiding his “evil deeds” was fully manifested from the beginning.

Notice that God had to seek out Adam since he chose not to seek God. Yet in seeking him, God still gave Adam a chance to admit his wrong when he asked, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Obviously, an all-knowing God knew where both Adam and Eve were, but gave Adam an opportunity to own up to his mistake.

In the end, Adam was not as forthright as he should have been and even blamed Eve—and God!—as the reason for his poor decision (Gen. 3:12). How difficult it can be for man to be accountable for his wrong choices!

Breaking the Cycle

How can mankind overcome this aspect of human nature that has plagued it for millennia?

To break the pattern of hiding sinful behavior—as well as all human nature characteristics—man must repent. This simply means to change.

Repentance is the first step toward becoming what the apostle Paul described: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17).

Christianity requires a man to go from old to new. This process is known as conversion.

Many in professing Christianity have heard of a person “being converted” or perhaps more commonly “being saved,” but few know what it actually means, let alone how and when it takes place.

The ministers of this world have deceived billions of followers when it comes to true conversion. They leave people utterly confused concerning many questions: What exactly is conversion? When does it occur? What is a Christian? How does one receive God’s Holy Spirit? What is the overall purpose of Christianity?

In the booklet What Is True Conversion?, Real Truth Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack addresses these fundamental questions along with much more. He states that “truly deep conversion does not occur overnight.”

Rather, Mr. Pack states, “Slow, steady growth, through daily practice, produces progress in the life of the person who is copying Christ. The new Christian sincerely strives, from the heart, to be different—to turn around and go the other way—the way of God—for the rest of his life!”

Hiding behaviors contrary to God’s Law is rooted in deception and is a major stumbling block to turning your life around and coming closer to the “light.”

Determine to be open before God about any weaknesses or aspects of your character that are holding you back. Admitting that you make mistakes and having a desire to change is the first step to overcoming—and experiencing lasting benefits! 


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