When I first read 1984 in 1984 (it was very popular that year) I thought the idea of a Video Screen that could see and hear our every action was a bit far-fetched. Then a couple of years ago I heard on the news that hackers were taking over people’s webcams[i], watching them in their private moments, even sharing some of these videos on YouTube without the knowledge or consent of the person in the video[ii]. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine works for a global high tech company, told me they were all issued a little black sticker to put over their webcam while they worked as part of the company security program. Suddenly our ordinary lives seemed like Hard Science Fiction.
As I walked into the Grass Roots Festival this year I noticed a sign posted to the gate. It said that such and such a company was creating documentary images of the event, and both video and photos would be taken. By crossing the gate you were giving up the right to your image irrevocably and in perpetuity. And if you did not want your image used? Just move out of the area where photos were being taken. As I gazed around the festival I noticed any direction I looked there was someone with a camera, or taking photos on their phone. By just showing up, we had given away our privacy.
That all seems pretty innocent when you look at it from one angle- websites, apps, social media can use what they know about you to tailor their advertising to your interests and habits. I’m sure it costs a lot of money to run a company like Facebook, and they’ve got to make it somewhere. But once that information is out there, it’s out there. You can’t shred it like a paper document; trying to find and delete your date once you’ve pushed “enter” is like trying to catch all the germs after a sneeze. Just ask the stars whose private photos were hacked and spread worldwide like a virus without their permission. Information that we may share for the most practical reason makes it available to folks who may not have our best interests at heart.
For example, Americans are divided about how much information we want the government to have about each of us. Some feel that data they are collecting is a violation of the 4th amendment of the US constitution which guarantees the right to privacy:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It has come out that the NSA is keeping data on every call we make- what numbers we call, when we call, and the duration of the call. Supporters feel that it’s fine to give up some of our rights for potential increased safety. they usually support it with a sentiment like “Innocent people have nothing to hide.”
Which brings us to this morning’s question. What does privacy mean in this age of sharing, in this age of information? Is there anything about privacy that is more valuable than the ease of storing our photos and documents in the cloud? More valuable than finding the nearest restaurant on your smart phone? More important than making sure the government has in its storage banks every bit of information that could help them prosecute wrongdoing? What is privacy for anyway?
Think about artistic or creative expressions. For every song you hear on the radio or painting hung on the gallery wall, an artist put in hour after hour focused on the tedious work of creation. Often, when I practice a song I’m going to sing here at the Open Mic, I make some horrible sounds. Not just because I am out of practice and not yet ready to perform, but also because some of those horrible sounds are really helpful in warming up the muscles used for singing. I usually close the door to my study when I make those sounds, and I know for a fact my family appreciates that.
As a culture, we believe that privacy is important in certain supportive relationships as well. Our courts honor the privacy between doctor and patient- because there needs to be some place where you ask that really embarrassing question. We honor the privacy between therapist and client, between minister and parishioner, because we know everyone needs a place where you can speak the scariest truths about yourself, about your life so that you can get the help you need, or just hear a trained professional can say “that’s pretty normal.” Many times when we face grief, or despair, or a crisis of meaning, we need a little space from the noise of community to heal.
And though we worship together as a beloved community, there is something deeply private about our spiritual lives. Consider the Buddha who finally found enlightenment sitting alone in meditation under the Bodhi tree. Consider Mary who, after the birth of her Son Jesus, and the arrival of the shepherds freshly visited by angels and when they all depart “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”[iv] Consider the great American Poet Wendell Berry, who has for several decades gone out walking each Sunday, alone in the farmed and wild places near his home, writing some of his greatest poems on these walks. Who wrote on one such Sunday in 1995:
“The best reward in going to the woodsIs being lost to other people, andLost sometimes to myself. I’m at the endOf no bespeaking wire to spoil my goods;
It probably bears explain that by “bespeaking wire” he means the cord of his landline. For Berry there is something precious about those private moments in the woods where one can be wild – in the way a great Oak is wild, it answers to no one and is truly itself. Privacy is necessary sometimes to allow us to remember who we really are and what is important to us. Sometimes privacy is necessary to lose oneself, to lose the rigid persona we present to the world in our roles as minister, dad, neighbor, nurse, teacher. That is why I tend to be of the opinion that we avoid taking photos during worship. Because when worship really does its job, we might have an unguarded moment. We might shed a tear, or try something new, or entertain controversial ideas. I want worship to be a time in our week when we don’t worry about how our face is composed, or that the words we speak from our heart will be taken out of context later.
But maybe we would give all that up for national security. Maybe, but I would argue that our freedom to dissent is part of what makes this country secure, is at the core of who we are as a country. Without our freedom to dissent, we quickly become that which we most fear- a totalitarian regime, a dystopian world like that in the classic and deeply disturbing novel 1984. Few of us still remember a time in this country where receiving the Socialist Party newsletter or consorting with a known communist meant you could be blacklisted, could lose your livelihood, your friends, your home. Which is why I think this is a great time to build in some privacy protections, to avoid a second McCarthy style witch-hunt in the future. We already know that if we do a google search on a question like “What is Socialism” or “what is Isis” that that data is carefully stored. That doesn’t bother us too much because no one has yet abused that data. But how easily could such data be abused, sweeping up people who just want to learn more about the world, to have good facts about socialism, about Islam (In this increasingly islamophobic time). These tools for data collection create brand new ethical considerations for us, and we as Unitarian Universalists, the people who published the Pentagon Papers, the tradition where many of our congregations gave up their tax-free status so as not to have to give names to the House Committee on Un-American activities, I believe there is a role for us here in this as well.
This is all so new, that we UUs have not yet come up with a cohesive ethical platform to guide us here, so each one of us must be part of creating those ethics together. The most important thing I hope you will bring back with you out into your week is simply an awareness of all the times each day we give away our privacy.
But if you do feel called to action, I suggest you let your elected representatives know that privacy is important to you. The outrage of many Americans (and foreign leaders) when we realized the extent of the information the NSA was collecting and storing drove the outrage of our public officials who took those concerns seriously when the Patriot act was re- authorized this past year.
If you want to learn more about all kinds of electronic privacy concerns, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (which was mentioned in that NPR interview Karen read). EFF is a non-profit that carefully tracks issues that affect our civil rights in the digital world in a way most of us just don’t have the time or technical expertise to do on our own. . In fact, EFF is working on a case called “First Unitarian Church of LA v. NSA” which is currently in the California Federal Court. The case involves an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in June of 2013 which demands “whole sale collection of every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration fo the call, and other identifying information for every phone and call for all customers of Verizon for a period of three months.” such diverse groups as 3 guns rights advocate organizations, the Council on American –Islamic Relations, and Patient Privacy Rights--A total of 22 organizations signed on to the case to protect the freedom of association, against “government access to the records of who they associate with , when, for how long and at what frequency.” [v]
I also invite you to consider learning which options you have to protect your personal privacy in everyday life, and we do have a few.
- Consider using a search engine like “Duck Duck Go” which does not track your searches
- Go into your phone and look at your privacy settings, and make sure they are set in a way that makes you comfortable.
- Same with your Facebook account- any time you see the word “public” that means anyone in the world can see information about you. Consider a setting like “friends only” when privacy is important to you
- Remember what Lindsey Lohan learned the hard way, and consider how you would feel if the cloud storage you use was hacked- is there anything you wouldn’t want shared by a malicious hacker?
- For those of us who use an EZ pass to speed up getting through tolls, remember that the device transmits information about your location[vi] Remember that gray sleeve it came with? Consider storing your EZ pass in its sleeve when not in use.
Finally, let’s begin to create together some agreements about what we share. I once had a co-worker who had fled an abusive relationship, and it was very important for her personal safety that her photo not appear on that businesses’ website or social media. In today’s culture we photograph and share everything we experience as matter of course. What if we went back to the etiquette of the old photographers who asked “may I take your photo” and then the 21st century follow up “may I post that photo online?” Just a reminder- once something is posted on Facebook, legally it belongs to Facebook. Once something has gone viral, it, like virus, cannot easily be contained.
Although Orwell painted a pretty grim picture in his book 1984, I actually felt better when I finished it, because we do still live in a society where dissent is protected by law, where you can still put some tape over your webcam if you don’t want your every moment to appear on YouTube. We are right now in an evolving ethical landscape of what privacy means in the age of information. I suggested these books of speculative fiction as summer reading to kindle our collective imaginations. We still have the freedom to shape our world- to protect whatever privacy is important to each of us. Whether that’s the freedom to dissent, the privacy that is needed at times for spiritual and emotional growth, the freedom to dance really badly and without caring what anybody thinks, the privacy to experiment and learn without being judged, or the freedom to have irregular traffic patterns. Now is the perfect time to consider carefully what privacy is for, and what we want to keep private.