Privacy in a Facebook World

Stories involving expanding government surveillance, increased law enforcement powers, and the bugging and tracking of American citizens have started appearing regularly in the news. However, the movie Enemy of the State portrayed all these issues in 1998. At the time, the government’s frightening invasion of privacy seemed more in the realm of conspiracy theorists. But today it doesn’t appear so far-fetched.

Scripture foretells a time when a world government led by the Antichrist will have the power and ability to monitor every movement and communication of every individual everywhere. And though the worst conditions will set in after believers are removed from Earth in the Rapture, the church cannot assume it will escape all of the consequences of the new technology that will create the world of the coming Antichrist.

Much of our personal information is already “out there.” How does that happen, and how is it used? It’s a scary reality that government agencies, foreign powers, and international  corporations have an astounding amount of knowledge about who we are, what we buy, and what we say. In fact, much of that information is given freely by us. We voluntarily put our data on the Internet because we obtain a benefit by doing so.

For example, the popular social network Facebook provides a valuable service by connecting us to our family, friends, and associates. We willingly post our pictures, statuses, and often private conversations in public view because doing so helps us maintain relationships with people who are important to us.

We eagerly use store loyalty cards to receive discounts at vendors we frequent. But we often don’t stop to consider that all our purchasing information is being stored and catalogued in databases and used to determine our buying patterns. We like to get “free” things, but we forget the old adage, “Nothing in life is free.” Those free apps, free discounts, and free social-network accounts aren’t really free. In return, the organizations are collecting our data—our personal information that can be bought and sold.

Advertisers gear their ads to people most likely to buy their products. The more information they have about a person, the better they can target their ads to appeal to the potential buyer. Security expert Bruce Schneier warns, “You’re not the customer of any of these companies. You’re the product.”1

Another method of obtaining information on Internet use is with tracking cookies. Cookies are small files that websites place on our computers. We benefit from not having to enter the same information every time we go back to a website we like. The site owner, however, also benefits by gaining access to greater amounts of data.

We may be aware of tracking cookies, and maybe we are even diligent to delete cookies regularly. But most of us don’t realize how much information is available to site owners, even without cookies. A website is able to query the browsers of computers viewing the site and collect detailed information about the type of computer you’re using, the size of its screen, the Internet address, and more. Enough information is available to be able to identify your individual computer and “fingerprint” it to be able to track activity over time.2 This activity takes place without your knowledge or consent and leaves no trace.

So we voluntarily put much of our personal information out into the public. But do we know what is being done with it? Many companies provide privacy-policy agreements that explain how they use the data they collect. But how many of us read through the 10 pages of fine print before we click “Accept”? Yet, because we don’t read the fine print, we sometimes get more than we bargained for.

The popular business social network LinkedIn recently introduced a new product called Intro. It’s designed to integrate LinkedIn information directly into Apple’s Mail app. What LinkedIn may not tell you is that Intro reconfigures your email so that all your mail gets routed and stored on LinkedIn servers. That may not bother you, but considering the fact that last year someone hacked into the LinkedIn servers and stole millions of user names and passwords, there may be a legitimate concern.3

In addition to the many ways corporations collect our information, government agencies are also collecting vast amounts of personal data on its citizens.

The National Security Agency (NSA) and other security agencies tap into corporate data. Much of it is passed on voluntarily by companies that have cooperation agreements with federal agencies. What isn’t given voluntarily is often taken involuntarily. Besides many reports of NSA break-ins to corporate data repositories, recent allegations make the case that the NSA has created “back doors” to be able to tap into and remotely access computer hardware, such as Apple iPhones, Dell computers, and Cisco routers, among others.4

Following the revelations by Edward Snowden, the American computer specialist who blew the whistle on the extent of the U.S. government’s data collection, alarms are sounding. There are, of course, legitimate uses for surveillance in detecting and apprehending terrorists and criminals. We want that. However, the extent to which the NSA has collected personal data and stored long-term records on average Americans has caused serious concerns about how far it is allowed to go before it destroys our right to privacy.5 Once the government knows everything, it can control everything—something that will happen in the days of the Antichrist.

What are the immediate risks of having our data in government and corporate hands? One risk is identity theft, which has become a serious problem in the United States. Criminals can purchase your personal information and, with the right tools, assume your identity in order to purchase goods without your knowledge and steal your money right from your bank accounts.

Credit-card fraud is one aspect of this problem that has become a particular concern. A recent computer attack on Target stores led to millions of credit-card numbers being stolen. Computer viruses and other forms of malware are often used to extract from your computer information that is sold to criminals who can use it to steal your money and identity.

Another risk to consider is how the government uses the information it gathers. Reports have shown that while the NSA has legitimate reason to delve into the activity of suspected terrorists and criminals, it also apparently has accumulated detailed information on millions of innocent Americans without our knowledge or oversight.6

The concern is that, in the not-too-distant future, Christians may find themselves on the wrong side of government surveillance efforts. As the world grows more and more intolerant of biblical Christianity, believers may have a growing problem with their private contacts, conversations, and communications finding their way into the hands of an increasingly hostile government.

It is not difficult to see how such a scenario could pave the way for the time foretold in Scripture when a world government led by the Antichrist will have the power and ability to monitor every movement and communication of the world populace.

The use of Internet-connected devices, now referred to as the “Internet of things,” makes that capability even more powerful.7 A few years ago, our computers were connected to the Internet; and that was about it. Now normal household devices like televisions, cellphones, home security systems, webcams, even appliances and thermostats are becoming Internet enabled.

While there are some useful benefits to these features, the power of an antagonistic government to be able to track everywhere we go and every-thing we say and do is frightening, to say the least. The locks on our doors, the temperature of our homes, and even our computerized stoves and refrigerators become accessible to hackers, potentially creating a future where privacy ceases to exist and “Big Brother” becomes a reality.

Of course, the ultimate evil use of technology will take place after believers are raptured from Earth, before the seven-year Tribulation. However, we cannot assume we will be unaffected as that day approaches.

We must be careful and wise as to how we use technology. It can be a good and powerful tool to spread the Good News of salvation. But it can also be a powerful force for evil in the wrong hands. We must be diligent while we have the opportunity to stand up and let our voices be heard when government and corporate agencies go too far in using our personal information in ways that threaten our privacy and safety.

ENDNOTES
  1. Bruce Schneier,  “Surveillance as a Business Model” November 25, 2013 <schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/11/surveillance_as_1.html>.
  2. Serdar Yegulalp, “The new Web tracking: You never see it coming,” InfoWorld, October 24, 2013 <tinyurl .com/INFO-fingerprint>.
  3. Bishop Fox, “LinkedIn ‘Intro’duces Insecurity,” bishopfox.com, October 23, 2013 <tinyurl.com/BF-insecurity>.
  4. “Apple, Cisco, Dell unhappy over alleged NSA back doors in their gear,” InfoWorld, December 31, 2013 <tinyurl.com/INFO-backdoors>.
  5. Robert X. Cringely, “Hard numbers, chilling facts: What the government does with your data,” InfoWorld, October 16, 2013 <tinyurl.com/IFW-chilling>. Also, Chandra Steele, “The NSA and the end of privacy,” July 1, 2013, PC Magazine <tinyurl.com/kpzokvz>.
  6. Loek Essers, “NSA collects address books to map human relationships,” InfoWorld, October 15, 2013 <tinyurl.com/esser-nsa>.
  7. Robert X. Cringely, “Welcome to the Internet of things. Please check your privacy at the door,” InfoWorld, November 18, 2013 <tinyurl.com/CheckYourPrivacy>.

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