From the smart doorbells that guard our homes to the millions of images that we post on social media to our phones, which never leave our side, tracking us in real time, we live in a world, mostly of our own choosing, where privacy is becoming more passe. Real-time tracking on our phones helps us to know exactly where our spouse is at any given moment and trackers keep up with teenage children as they drive off for the first time on their own. It seems we are blissfully living inside of George Orwell’s 1984 novel, but is it possible to have any sense of real privacy in a society that is increasingly connected to sophisticated artificially intelligent (AI) systems?
And yet there is a renewed interest among Americans about the nature of digital privacy. Legislators in California passed sweepig legislation called The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) modeled on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enacted a few years ago by the European Union. While Congress continues to debate federal privacy legislation, our friends and neighbors are growing increasingly wary of emerging technologies and what they might mean for our own personal privacy and that of our family.
Often these conversations revolve around a sense of personal autonomy etched in our minds by Western philosophies or just a deep sense that we don’t want people knowing all of our business. In authoritarian states like China, citizens have very little hidden from the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Is this where we are inevitably headed in the United States?
Privacy isn’t an ambiguous right that we feel compelled to protect out of fear of others knowing our secrets, nor is it just a civil liberty grounded in our nation’s constitution. Some modern concepts of privacy can be rooted in the Christian understanding of the nature of humans as imago dei (in the image of God). Our understanding of privacy must be grounded in the uniqueness of every human being as image bearers, not in the mores of the day or even in our American ideals.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is pressed to answer the question of what is the greatest commandment. In Matt 22:37-39, he responds that Christ followers are to love God with all of their hearts, minds, souls and strength, as well as love their neighbors as themselves. This is the grounding for much of the Christian moral tradition that seeks to promote human flourishing for all–out of a love of God and neighbor.
To truly love our neighbor, we must recognize that our neighbors are more than just the sum of their parts, contrary to what many materialists would argue. Nor is their value and worth defined by what they contribute to our society, contrary to a utilitarian ethic. True human dignity and human rights must be grounded in something greater than ourselves, otherwise the moral foundations will ultimately collapse under the weight of the complex ethical issues we are facing with the rise of emerging technologies. Such technologies include AI facial recognition for policing as seen with the revelations of Clearview AI’s controversial development of their AI surveillance system, or even modern marketing tactics by popular brands like Facebook and Google that are based on what Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard University calls “surveillance capitalism,” which she defines as the prosperity gains by technology companies that offer low cost or free services to the public but retain the rights to use our data to sell predictive products to marketers and third-parties seeking to capitalize on us a potential customers.
Christianity has the moral framework and an anchored foundation to address the most pressing issues of our day. The concept of human dignity grounded in the image of God helps us to see that we are to seek the good of our neighbors at all times rather than to take advantage of them for our selfish gains. While businesses do have the right to use the data that we consent to share with them, they must also be called to a higher ethical standard than a laissez-faire approach.
With data breaches that can endanger many livelihoods, cameras on nearly every street keeping watch on us, and the rise of smart home devices designed to keep us safe but tracking our every move, we must be more proactively engaged in how we approach emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition. We cannot afford to outsource our moral decision-making on these monumental issues to elected officials or even company CEOs and boards. Each of us must step forward and engage these pressing issues while there is still time to make a difference.
Our families and friends are not just points of data to be collected, examined, or sold for profit. They are people made in the image of God and thus have infinite value and worth, not only in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of their neighbors who seek to stand up for the oppressed, downtrodden, and overlooked in our society. The people around us deserve it and the Christian gospel demands it.