Making Family Decisions Amidst Ever-Diminishing Privacy
It was 2006 when I knowingly traded in my perceived freedom of privacy.
We were three flights into our four-flight journey. Our two wiggly boys, then 3 and 18 months, rode atop the heap of duffels piled on a baggage cart as I –with half-grown pregnant belly– waddled past the eyes of the watching customs guard. We were moving to a far-flung province of China to explore options for micro-business among an economically-disadvantaged people group.
Fast-foward 6 months. We lived in college housing because we’d enrolled in language classes at the college. The kids were in bed asleep while we visited, told stories, and laughed in our living room with a couple of English-speaking friends.
I only said his name once. It was smack-dab in the middle of the story.
“… they tried to talk to him, but he was incoherent.
Even when they yelled out his name– ‘TYLER!’— it was like he wasn’t there…”
The next morning, I passed a half-sacrificed horse, as it gasped its final breaths. It was a sacrificing holiday, and this people group sacrifices both horses and sheep. The growing flow of his blood did not yet cross the sidewalk leading to my language lesson. Though this was all happening on the college campus where we lived– in the yard between two rows of campus housing– no one but me seemed to think this odd.
Our Laoshi wore her usual welcoming smile as we chatted before our lesson. Out of the blue, she turned to me:
“So is Tyler a common name in America?”
Surely my face went white. I turned to my classmate, who had been there the night before, and we stutteringly tried to cover our surprise. “What?” I asked.
“In America, is Tyler a common name?”
I answered: “No. No it’s not.” Then the lesson began, as if nothing unusual had just happened.
I still can’t decide with certainty, but one of these two things has to be true:
- Either she was knowingly warning us, or
- She was naive and curious, not realizing that her comment educated us about the degree to which our words were being heard and analyzed.
When I got home, I told Doug about the name-drop even before I told him about the once-gasping horse that had died sometime during my Mandarin lesson.
While I’ve never again seen a sacrificed horse, I’ve had many opportunities to have my private data come back to slap me in the face.
When Facebook sidebar ads began reflecting the details of our recent google searches, we all felt more than a little weirded out. We talked about privacy a little bit. We were outraged a little bit.
But only a little bit.
Then we (me included) went back to our Facebook using, our LOL-ing, our video-liking, and our talking-politics-even-though-a-Facebook-thread-never-changed-anyone’s-mind-ing.
We were a little bit mad. And then, we weren’t.
Crouched at the bottom shelf, I was looking at melamine dishes in an attempt to ward off the inevitable breaking of dishes by preschoolers, when I saw him standing there.
Unlike other minders I’d noticed following me, he didn’t try to hide or blend in. Legs spread to shoulder distance, with his arms clasped in front of his large business-suited frame, he was bored. Fixed there at the end of the grocery aisle, he stared as I tried to decide between the blue scrolly-edged dish set with teacup-sized bowls and the garish fruit pattern with better-sized bowls.
After I stood up and walked in the opposite direction to advance to the next aisle, I looked back in time to see him tread over. Now, I stood and stared at him (yes, I did. I figured if he was being that obvious to me, it wasn’t ridiculous for me to obviously notice him). He picked up every single dish I’d touched, turning each one over to examine all sides.
I suppose he was making sure I hadn’t planted a bug or left a “drop” for some (in my case, nonexistent) handler.
No sir, it really did take that long for me to decide between design and function.
Design won out. With the scrolly blue ones in my basket, sans the too-small bowls, I made my way to the counter. Soon, he trailed behind.
It irritated me when Pinterest started “tailoring” custom-curated “just for you” pins. The problem with it, particularly in Pinterest, is this: part of the fun of pinning used to be the thrill of discovery. Now, they serve me pins that are like the things I’ve already pinned. For me, this strips away the very essence of what initially made Pinterest great.
Beyond that, I don’t like the way they are now using my data to somehow “pin me down.”
I’ve stopped spending as much time on Pinterest.
Whether or not your social media habits have changed due to privacy, I think one thing is nearly universally true:
none of us like to have our privacy stripped away without warning or input.
In our case, we decided to abandon our privacy before we even got passport pictures taken. Before we moved there, we talked with people who had lived there, and knew they would probably bug the phones. It wasn’t known the degree to which they listened, but we generally believed they could turn the bugs on even when we weren’t using our phones and that they could increase their sensitivity at will (the “Tyler” incident later confirmed this).
We knew about the minders… that we would be followed and “tailed” when in vehicles. We knew everything we did would (probably) be scrutinized.
So none of it surprised us or frustrated us too much. Because we legitimately wanted to do what our paperwork said we were there to do (start a business to help people), we accepted this soul-irritant as part of the choice to live in China.
We learned to work around it, and actually (to some degree) got used to it. Sometimes as a couple, we had discreet, whispered private conversations in the bathroom, Sydney-Bristow-style, with the shower running.
Occasionally, we used the surveillance to our advantage. To avoid our typical 5-minute walk to the taxi stand with little ones in tow, in advance of a trip out, I’d announce loudly to Doug, “yes, I’m planning to head to the market in about 20 minutes. It’d sure be nice if a taxi happened to be going by.
Every time we did this, there was a taxi parked and waiting for us at the bottom of the building.
This year, my oldest son is participating in NCFCA (a homeschool speech & debate league) and this year’s topic involves these issues:
Resolved: When in conflict, the right to individual privacy is more important than national security.
So, in order to develop his understanding of the easily-abused relationship between privacy and government, we’re reading 1984 out loud together. Orwell’s character descriptions are gold, and they gleam all the brighter when read aloud. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve cackled as Ethan has imitated its cockney-voiced proles.
But then there are portions of this book– written in 1949, mind you— that, when you consider:
- internet data-mining
- the rise of cameras: traffic cams, street cams, security cams, police cams, alongside government agencies’ admitted use of those cams for tracking persons of interest
- remote-activated & remote-accessed webcams
- search-engine-inspired sidebar advertisements
- cookies & metadata
- e-commerce & the move away from physical money (and of course, even our physical dollar bills no longer possess any absolute value, as we long ago left the gold standard)
- the move away from print material
- the ease with which internet data is revised
- thermal monitors
- “private” photos that make their way to the public eye (Mamas out there, are you paying attention? We should be telling our kids this!!! This knowledge should be as common to them as the air they breathe before they ever have possession of a phone.)
- television screens that collect and send data back to a third-party
start to seem like an uncomfortably-close resemblance of our American lives in 2015.
Perhaps, as the recent Atlantic article suggests, it’s not so terribly paranoid to be concerned that we may eventually end up, or perhaps that we increasingly ARE– if not in details, in philosophy– living in a world similar to the one Orwell described:
“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.”
“He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking. . . .”
Orwell offered this chilling observation:
“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
This is true, too, when applied to the seizure of privacy.
So, then, while mulling privacy in this modern age, with the modern patterns of those in power, and these modern means of social interaction, and the unlikeliness of a return to private, individual lives without surveillance, I consider:
- What options are there for me and mine?
- What will I, and what won’t I, post about my family to social media?
- How much preparation will my children need in order to live wisely in this age?
- When will I allow them to enter the digital world, and under what agreements?
As I think about these things, I know we may each fall in different places. So my goal here is not to present you with a systematic checklist of what we do/don’t do. But I do want to share openly that I’m noticing these things, thinking about these things, and connecting them to our previous experiences with the loss of privacy.
This is a real issue we’re all facing, and it’s not going away.
So, for me the choices at present, living here in America, at this present time, seem to be quite similar, actually, to what my options were when we moved to China in 2006:
- Deliberately choose to live in a place where these conditions do not exist (i.e., now that would be, I suppose, to go to some sort of well-armed [or not] commune and learn to live off the grid, or to, perhaps, move to a third-world country),
- Live in hand-wringing paranoia and oft-rising irritation at our decreasing privacy,
- Or just understand that this is how things are in the time and place determined by God, and live in the light.
And for us, where we’ve landed is the same as where we landed in China– #3. We choose to:
- study and seek to understand the times in which we live,
- maintain our privacy in the ways we are able (this would include, in America, using our rights to affect officials and the law), and
- deliberately live in the light.
So for now, I’m reading 1984 aloud with my 13-year-old, contemplating what “privacy” looks like in this modern age of social-media, occasionally dreaming of running for office as I have for nigh-on 20 years, and continually reminding myself of my Father’s sovereignty and goodness amidst it all.
IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE:
- Does our ever-diminishing privacy concern you?
- How do you navigate this issue of ever-diminishing privacy in everyday life and in online interactions? What considerations come into play as you think through these issues for your family?
- How are you talking with your children about these things?
Subscribe to my newsletter, and I'll send monthly encouragement -- full of truth and grace for moms. SIGN UP, SO WE CAN KEEP IN TOUCH: