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How to resist the prying eyes of the tech firms

by
18 September 2020

The digital revolution is unstoppable — but that does not mean that it has to be unregulated, argues Mark Ireland

LAST week, I explored some of the dangers of an increasingly surveillance society, in which big tech companies know more about each of us than we know ourselves, and use their market dominance to squeeze out competition (Comment, 11 September). For example, nearly 90 per cent of searches online now use Google, and 63 per cent of these searches end up on sites controlled by Google. Facebook is able to profile the likes and dislikes of every one of its two billion users, and to sell that information.

Apologists for the increasing intrusion of surveillance in our lives often say, “Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” At one level, Christians should be in a better place to cope with no privacy than others, if we are living lives of transparency and integrity. The psalmist writes: “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”

Being known by God carries no fear, because in God I am perfectly known, warts and all, and, at the same time, I am perfectly loved. But having so much about me known by tech companies, who are motivated by profit rather than by love, and use that knowledge to make predictions and judgements about my behaviour which may be wrong, is something to be afraid of. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can never know me perfectly, because its algorithms are written by flawed human beings, and AI can never love me perfectly.

 

IF KNOWLEDGE is power, then intimate knowledge of us falling into the wrong hands, as with frequent large data breaches, is something to fear. On a more sinister level, the government of China is now using its all-intrusive surveillance of its citizens through their mobile phones and other apps in a way that gives a frightening glimpse of how this information can be used in a totalitarian state to create a system of total social control.

In the 19th century, there were two powerful reactions to the Industrial Revolution. One was to try to destroy the looms in the Lancashire cotton mills, to put the clock back, which, of course, was futile. The other was to use legislation such as the Factory Acts, and moral influence from the Churches, to mitigate the most harmful effects of industrialisation and harness new-found prosperity for good ends.

Learning from the Luddites, we need to resist the temptation to be “Christians against progress”, as if every new invention was somehow of the evil one. We should also listen to the voice of younger generations in our churches, who are digital natives, and are more aware of the dangers as well as the benefits of IT, and often much more savvy than their parents.

Historically, we should take the long view and realise that people’s lives have been subject to powerful forms of social control in every age. In Lancashire, where I work, the 19th-century mill-owners (some of whom had deep Christian faith and paternalist motivations) provided employment in return for the fruits of their workers’ labours. Often, they employed wives, husbands, and children, provided their houses, built the parish church, and even invested in the rise of Fylde coast resorts, so that their influence pervaded every aspect of life.

 

THE advance of technology may be unstoppable, but that does not mean that it has to be unregulated. During the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the blast furnace and the spinning jenny could not be undone, but that did not mean that there was no need for Lord Shaftesbury, the Clapham Sect, or Octavia Hill to campaign for legislation to stop children being sent down the mines, and to provide decent housing.

Learning from the example of the Clapham Sect in the 19th century, Christians have several steps that they can take. We should campaign for legislative change in Parliament: regulation of the tech industry is urgently needed to promote safety, privacy, honesty, and competition.

The influential work of the Bishop of St Albans with the House of Lords review of the gambling industry (News, 5 July) shows that greater regulation to protect the vulnerable can be achieved. The Church Commissioners can use their investment portfolio and the Church’s moral voice to bring pressure to bear on tech companies to act more ethically.

As individuals, we can also do much more to protect ourselves and our own privacy. I have installed DuckDuckGo as my search engine, which keeps no record of my search history, and I am looking to change my private email from Gmail. We can also disable all but essential cookies when we visit a new website.

But, last and most important, we can redeem the culture. Rather than bemoan the digital revolution, let’s find more creative ways to harness it and use it for good.

 

The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn and a co-author of several books on mission, evangelism, and discipleship.

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