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Personal Privacy Under an Omniscient Gaze – Love Matters

For people who believe in an omniscient God, the concept of privacy is complicated.

On the one hand, what’s the point or protecting personal privacy?  If all of life is lived under the bright spotlight of God’s knowledge and awareness of our personal sin, for which we ultimately will be held accountable, why should we imagine that we have any meaningful privacy at all?

On the other hand, one of the earliest and best-known stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Fall, shows we instinctually seek to hide from God’s omniscient gaze.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve worked and lived in the garden, naked and unashamed.  Genesis  2:15, 25. But the Creator placed in the Garden a tree with fruit that gave knowledge of good and evil and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it. v.2:17.  Tempted by the devil in the form of a snake, Eve ate the fruit and gave some to Adam, granting them both the knowledge of good and evil.  When God appeared, they hid from him, newly aware of their nakedness. v.3:8-10.  Even while banishing them from the Garden for their disobedience, God clothed them in recognition of their newfound desire for privacy.  v.3:21.

I remember singing a little Sunday School song that channeled God’s omniscient gaze into a guide for my youthful daily conduct: “Oh be careful little eyes what you see / Oh be careful little eyes what you see / For the Father up above is looking down in love / Oh be careful little eyes what you see. Additional verses addressed what you hear, what you do, what you speak. The comforting key to this song for a small child was the words “in love”.  A small child can live in a constant spotlight if it is a warm and loving gaze – a familiar feeling in a happy home.

But even in happy homes, the safe walls eventually fall away and we learn the risk of being known too well where all is not buffered by love.  Bullying boys and mean girls, as well as the development of an adolescent interior life and desire for freedom from parental guidance, teach us discretion in what we share with others.  And as we accumulate disappointments and a record of behavior we are ashamed of, we begin to hide from ourselves.  We build an external life we think of as “reputation” and a narrative of our interior life that enables us to stand ourselves.  All of this is sheltered by a social boundarying of knowledge we call “privacy”.

In this way, personal privacy and undue knowledge have been boundaried for thousands of years. Our feature in this issue on the origins of privacy in the Hebrew Old Testament recounts the rules governing privacy as far  back as  camp life for the hundreds of thousands of Israelites wandering in the wilderness in the second millennium BC.  Later, King David invades beautiful Bathsheba’s privacy at her bath with disastrous consequences for her, her husband, a baby and the nation. Susannah at her bath suffers sexual harassment by two elders of Israel in the Apocrypha of the Catholic Bible, but fights back in a way that reforms the rules of judicial evidence.

When God again walks the earth in the Christian New Testament in the form of Jesus (said to be “very God and very Man”), we see the boundaries of privacy again dramatically fall away before the omniscient Divine Gaze.  Jesus knows people’s thoughts and their “hearts” before they speak.  He tells the woman at the well in John 4:17-18 her life story before she discloses it herself, creating a new path for her of understanding and redemption.  He calls the elders of Israel hypocrites for caring more about their exterior practices than their internal thoughts.  Matthew 15:5-7. All of this is part of his claimed power to realign exterior and interior life, for “God looks on the heart” and it is “what comes out of a person that defiles”, not what is shown in exterior behavior.

Many mysteries remain preserved in this life, as the Apostle Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”  But at the end of time, the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, foretells that all actions and thoughts of every human will be revealed in a Day of Judgment.  This prophecy continues to fire our imaginations, not to mention our fears, about our inability to protect our interior lives and the actions and behaviors we would prefer to hide (for instance, Albert Brooks in the movie Defending Your Life). Again, what preserves hope under this omniscience is God’s loving provision of a means of forgiveness that weights the outcome in a believer’s favor.

Across the millennia, we have continued to vigorously pursue knowledge while seeking to boundary it about ourselves.  Moving past the classical era into the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the modern industrial age, man’s increasing ability to communicate through print and the correspondence that grew with broadening commerce placed a corresponding enhanced value on private space and knowledge.

We see this in foundational United States law.  America’s Founders recognized rights of privacy in our physical spaces in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution by including freedom from an obligation to quarter troops in homes and from unlimited search and seizure in the Fifth Amendment;  freedom in relationships in the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on compelling self-incriminating testimony; and freedom to hold property in the Fifth Amendment prohibition on government taking of private property and the Constitutional mandate in Article 1, Section 8 for laws protecting ideas and writing, i.e.,  intellectual property. In 20th and 21st century Supreme Court jurisprudence this privacy right has been expanded to remove prohibitions on the right to choose who we can marry and a woman’s control over her reproductive organs, and an ever-expanding system of intellectual property protections.

Alongside this foundational respect for privacy rights, we suddenly find ourselves with the most powerful tools ever devised to feed our curiosity and drive to know about the world and each other.  These tools which create, collect and analyze vast amounts of data, likewise diminish in ways never before possible our ability to boundary what is known by others about us.  The digitization of knowledge has transformed our daily use of search engines into huge pools of broad, deep, intimate and particularized data about how we think and behave.  Likewise, the digitization through surveillance cameras of our movement through the physical world of public space, and through tracking software of our movements online. As AI pioneer inventor Joanna Ng describes in her feature in this Issue, in return for free or inexpensive access to the benefits of such technologies, consumers have largely surrendered such personal data with barely a pause, until now.  And we have done so in ways far more honest and unveiled than the padded accounts we give on surveys and in the confessional.

As a result, armed with AI-powered analytical software, data scientists can now draw back the curtain on mankind’s behavior and reveal who we truly are in deeply personal and self-revelatory ways only previously known to the Divine Gaze.  Data scientist Seth Stephen-Davidowitz vividly recounts some of these revelations in his 2017 book “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are.”  Warning: if you do not want to dwell on your fellow humans’ weird sexual interests, deep racism, and other offensive biases, do not read this eye-opening book!  This newly available near-omniscient gaze not only helps us understand others – it also define us to ourselves.  In the right hands – the hands of a loving Deity who seeks to draw us into a better life through knowledge of sin, repentance, precepts for fulfilled living, opportunities for humble service, and a community of fellow believers – such knowledge is constructive.  In the hands of ordinary human data scientists who lack divine love and may not even believe there is anything beyond the purely material, such information is at best only descriptive, and discouragingly so at that. And in the hands of governments and businesses who employ such scientists, it is a means for control and manipulation that will most likely disserve human flourishing without the application of new rules and controls over its use to pursue power and wealth.

While our searches on the Internet reveal our real behavior and nature, new social media tools like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram allow us to share more information about ourselves than ever before.  We are both actor and acted upon in our sharing of data.  These social media tools, when put to work by people of good will and character, have great potential for fostering human relationships and understanding.  The features in this Newsletter by Michael Paulus and Eric Stoddart describe how looking at privacy from the relational viewpoints of both the agent and the person acted upon and in the context of the “common good” offer dynamic ways of thinking about privacy appropriately in this new age.

But at the same time these social media tools are creating new ways of genuinely relating, they allow us to “self-brand” and actively curate public images in unprecedented ways,   transforming traditional concepts of reputation. A “reputation” formerly was created by third parties’ perceptions of a person’s good character and virtues. On social media, reputation is more often a façade erected without any foundation earned by time and effort, curated more or less carefully to collect supportive “likes” and avoid destructive shaming.  It is a fair question whether such manufactured reputations are worth protecting?

While weakening the value of a “reputation”, social media tools are also shifting how we draw the boundaries of privacy from a broad social contract resting on professional journalism standards and law court decisions, into billions of individual decisions about individual privacy settings and what to display. These decisions themselves provide a data pool from which data scientists can derive our new practical rules of privacy based on the reality of what we choose to share.  But the values underlying such privacy decisions seem ever more opaque, unlike the reasoning previously provided through overtly stated standards of professional journalism and the careful reasoning of court decisions.

Technology powered by artificial intelligence not only fosters social connection (for better or worse) but provides the ability to sort and analyze highly particularized data for purposes of social control, including the exercise of police powers and the distribution of social goods and benefits.  This has important ramifications for people of faith in the free practice of their religion, alongside other civil liberties, as totalitarian societies are already demonstrating.  The features in this issue by Professor Eric Stoddart and Yaqub Chaudhary explore the ramifications of a loss of privacy for free religious practice.

In sum, AI-powered technology affects privacy interests across many social vectors, from acceptable personal sharing in relationships, to appropriate public control of behavior and the practice of liberty, even to our self-knowledge and understanding. Sensibly regulating this technology to protect privacy and encourage human flourishing across these vectors, depends on articulating foundational principles for the value of personal privacy. Finding such principles in the ancient wisdom of faith doctrines and beliefs is a great opportunity for people of faith to contribute to and stabilize the increasingly fluid and ungrounded secular debate around privacy.

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