Private no more

Not so long ago, an irate father walked into a department store to complain to the manager. His teenage daughter had just received store coupons in the mail for baby clothes, cribs and similar items. The father demanded to know why these were sent to a teenager. The manager apologized.

A few days later the father called back, but this time he apologized. It turned out his daughter was pregnant after all. He didn't know. But the store's customer databases did. By tracking changes in the young woman's purchasing, they had automatically deduced she was expecting, and targeted their advertising accordingly.

This story (reported by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit) is a symbol of the new age of information and privacy we live in. The amount of data collected about us by governments and corporations is staggering. And that doesn't include the vast trove of information that we freely volunteer every time we post on Facebook and other social media sites.

I've heard a lot of secular discussion about these issues and their implications. But not necessarily from Christians. Isn't it morally and spiritually concerning that so much is known about us—perhaps even more than we know about ourselves or our loved ones, like in the above story?

Some may shrug and say they have nothing to hide, or that privacy laws will protect us, or even that it's downright convenient to let a computer figure out the stuff we want. But the ever-increasing collection and manipulation of data, primarily to sell things, is an example of the commodification of people, and ultimately a diminution of human dignity. Instead of being uniquely made in the likeness of Christ, we have become a set of purchasing trends.

Like other organizations, churches have developed privacy policies for the use of their directories and other information. That information can be quite useful for everybody; it just requires controls to ensure it is not exploited.

Facebook is a great way to keep in contact with friends and family. But the company constantly pushes for more, and you need to monitor your privacy settings to ensure the level of control you want. A balance is obviously required. But the technological possibilities and the imperatives of commerce are always pushing ahead, keeping things perpetually off-balance, turning us into more and more data that can be mined and manipulated.

Perhaps Christians don't feel as compelled to speak here because there are so many others doing so. Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, is a world leader in ensuring that Facebook, Google and other large corporations protect their user's privacy, and there's a lively debate on these issues.

But I'm struck that most Christians don't seem to see data collection and information privacy as a moral issue that demands more Christian reflection and response, even as we all become fodder for department store databases.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.