Ten Theses on Surveillance

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a camera. Not one of those “gotcha” traffic light cameras, just a guy on his cell phone recording the world going by from behind the wheel (no comment on the insane hazard he made himself). I have no idea what he wanted to accomplish, and his recording is none of my business…or is it?

Maybe he was simply trying to share a nice sunset with (given his driving choices) his soon-to-be-bereaved family, but now he’s got a bunch of license plate numbers (including mine) eternally residing in iCloud or Google Drive. Privacy these days is a relative thing, to be sure, and I seriously doubt anyone will ever find any relevant use for Mr. Steer-and-Shoot’s artistry. Still, it has prompted some further reflection on the ubiquity of surveillance exercised on citizens of the modern world and the lack of attention most of us pay it.

When we each voluntarily post hundreds (or thousands) of photos and videos bearing our likeness in public spaces, being recorded is as human an experience today as breathing. We may grouse a bit, depending on who is behind the camera, but mostly we don’t even notice anymore. Why worry? What do we have to fear if we’re doing nothing wrong? In the main, very little. On consideration, everything.

He's watchin' you...
He’s watchin’ you…

I am neither a Luddite nor the son of a Luddite, but responsible wariness is the better part of wisdom. That said, here are, in no particular order, some thoughts on the subject.
1) God sees all and knows all. This seems the foundation stone of any discussion on surveillance. All things private or public, down to the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Rev. 2:23), are alike an open book before our Lord. Seeking protection for parts of our lives from the eyes and ears of others is right and natural, but nothing is hidden from His sight. Privacy exists to protect virtue, not to conceal vice.

2) Man will always only ever know in part. This is the counterpoint to the previous observation, underlaying our moral standards (rejecting gossip, for example) and jurisprudence (requiring multiple witnesses for conviction of crime). We are not God and must weigh our knowledge and actions accordingly.

3) When man thinks he knows all, he only knows the observable. Surveillance, broadly considered, is man’s attempt to make up for our lack of omniscience through technology. Even so, the best audiovisual quality never reveals character, motives, or logic. Our “pics-or-it-didn’t-happen” culture denigrates any reality that cannot be documented, giving undue weight to what can be. A video is not an eyewitness, let alone two.

4) Man seeks to apply justice to what He sees. When we admit recorded images and words of a person in a court of law, it is compelling, but never the whole story. Judges and juries attempt to hold this in perspective with other testimony and physical evidence before conviction. The court of public opinion is less measured, and the list of lives ruined by out-of-context audio and video is lengthy. The indignation of the mob is fierce and undiscerning.

5) God applies true justice. God, in His holiness and sovereignty, brings about all things according to His perfect plan. This is, of course, on His terms and His timetable, but ultimately, all wrongs are righted and no one “gets away with it.”

6) God applies His justice with mercy. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:8, 14). God knows the background, context, and consequences of every deed, and exercises holy restraint in administering punishment because He loves us and desires our repentance as much as He requires justice.

7) Even man’s mercy is sinful. We are quick to pounce on the failings of our fellows, and equally quick to plead for forgiveness when our own sins are exposed. Too often, we overlook rather than forgive, with catalogues of past offenses at hand to parry the next accusation that comes our way. The more we know, the less we love.

8) The power of the sword demands accountability. God grants governing authorities power to bring justice in this life, but when we grant them access to more and more of our lives through surveillance more and more petty actions are deemed criminal. The people should watch the government, not the other way around. In another manner of speaking, to a man with a gavel, everything looks like an opportunity for sentencing.

9) Love keeps no record of wrongs. A healthy society demands forgiveness. It is difficult to put the past in the past and allow for a man to be taken at his word when he repents, when every misdeed is accessible on some hard drive or other. Our relationships with others (legal and personal) can be so much more than opportunities for manipulation and redress, but we must be able to forget in order to forgive.

10) A complex creation rejects simple solutions. See all of the above. No one is the sum of his externally observable movements. When we presume to ourselves the attributes and responsibilities of the Creator, we cross a line beyond which no good can come. The modern surveillance state is a fearsome tool, all too available for abuse of power. “Security” is a poor word choice for a condition in which we can be described in detail by people who neither know us nor love us.

A little caution goes a long way toward navigating a world of watchers. Conversely, in Joseph Heller’s phrase, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Barring a technological collapse on a scale that none of us could wish for, we cannot avoid constant recording. We can, however, think critically and Biblically about the purposes of such a system and how to restrain its use.

One thought on “Ten Theses on Surveillance

  1. How true, yet I have to disagree with #9. By the power of God alive in us we can forgive….though we may never fully forget!! The mind’s eye of personal
    injustices is hard to erase, though we can choose (and must ) to not go there.
    He can renew our minds too. PTL!!

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