Digital Maps

The Safeway grocery chain offers its customers big savings on everything from steak to dog food. All you have to do is present your "Savings Club" card at the checkout line. Of course, in exchange for the savings, Safeway learns every detail of your shopping habits—a loss of privacy that's increasingly characteristic of the Information Age. We Americans voluntarily give up enormous amounts of information about ourselves—things like our names, social security numbers, and birth dates—to complete strangers. Every time we use a credit card or write a check, we leave behind clues about who we are: our likes, dislikes—even our weakness for Mrs. Field's cookies. In the words of Alan Westin, president of the Center for Social and Legal Research, "your credit card is literally a map of your life." That information goes into enormous databases, where people will pay handsomely for a peek at every detour your life takes. Most of these people just want to sell you something, and they use the information for marketing surveys. Then there are law enforcement agencies that use credit card records for good reasons—for example, to track down criminals or deadbeat dads. But there's a darker side to Information Age technology. Bryan Pfaffenberger, author of Protect Your Privacy on The Internet, says that "for $5 you can get anybody's social security number, and for another $5, [you can] get all his residences for the past five years." With this information you can gain access to someone's credit card numbers. Your medical records, salary, and investments—all are available for a price. How did we become so vulnerable to invasions of our privacy? The answer is that Americans have embraced Information Age technology without stopping to ask how it will shape the culture. In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman warns that every technology brings with it an ideology—a set of beliefs, a way of doing things, a shifting of priorities. In the case of the Information Age, its name says it all. Its enthusiasts believe that the efficient collection and manipulation of information is the key to prosperity. Corporations and governments now digitize as many of their records as possible—records that contain intimate details of our lives. In this rush to digitize, few people stopped to ask whether this was a good idea. Consequently, we have lost the ability to control who has access to our personal information. What can we do about it? We can ask our legislators to erect barriers against this flood of free-flowing data. For example, after newspapers published Judge Robert Bork's video rental list a few years ago, Congress made it a crime to release such information. If our video rental habits are off-limits to snoops, the more intimate details of our lives should be also. Christians know that sinful human nature needs the restraint of law to prevent abuses of power. That's why we should get behind measures that would restrain those who can't resist the urge to use the Internet to pry into the most private aspects of our lives. You may not care that strangers know you love Mrs. Field's cookies—but you should care that, at the click of a mouse, almost every detail of your private life is exposed to any stranger who wants it.


Chuck Colson


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