Eavesdropping and your e-mails: nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

Published 14 June 2013  |  
So how would you feel, then, if all the e-mails you had ever sent were suddenly exposed to public view? And what would you think if every website visit you made was noted by members of the secret service?

These are just some of the questions that have been raised by allegations that the National Security Agency of the US has been accessing emails and other personal information from some of the world's biggest internet companies through the clandestine programme known as PRISM.

At its most simplistic, the debate which has resulted has veered between one group of people saying, "How dare they! That's an outrageous invasion of privacy!" – and another group of people responding, "But hang on a moment – if it stops terror attacks and save lives, then what have the innocent to fear?"

From a Christian perspective, the concept of secrecy is often somewhat dubious, because it frequently serves to cover up things that people shouldn't be doing. As the Apostle Paul says, it is "shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret," (Ephesians 5:11-12).

This aversion to secrecy comes partly from a desire to embrace the positive virtue of honesty. But it also stems from the knowledge that we have no secrets from God – and that we are all ultimately accountable to Him. As Jesus puts it: "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs," (Luke 12:2-3).

Having said that, inappropriate secrecy is different from appropriate privacy – and in a Christian worldview, there is a rightful place for the latter. Some things are just not appropriate to be aired in public – from the obvious example that we wear clothes to cover up parts of our bodies (1 Corinthians 12:23) to the teaching of Jesus that when we are doing good, giving to the poor, praying or fasting we should do so privately because broadcasting the fact around tends to call into question the integrity of our motives (Matthew 6:1-18).

Moreover, Jesus makes it clear that it is wise for individuals to conduct some sensitive and difficult actions and conversations in private (Matthew 18:15). It would seem reasonable to accord the same general principle to groups of people in government as well.

Where does appropriate privacy end and inappropriate secrecy begin? In terms of individuals, American writer S.L. Whitesell observes: "Christians should strive to live in such a way that we have nothing to fear from our rulers, whether that means an elected Congress or an anointed king... This news is not distressing because we want to be able to watch all the weird pornography or troll comment threads on Facebook without others knowing about it. Newsflash: the only Person who matters already knows about that stuff. So just stop."

When it comes to the authorities, they clearly have a mandate in Christian terms to pursue wrongdoing (Romans 13:3-5). The key question is whether their actions are conducted in a way that is accountable both to God and to the systems of government of which they are a part. Rulers are not above the law, nor above God. And so Whitesell continues: "Just as we are not lawbreakers, so too do we insist on the integrity of the law. Our rulers are not free to act outside the power that constitutes them."

In a nutshell: appropriate privacy becomes wrongful secrecy when it lacks God-honouring accountability.


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