It’s been a little while since the furore started over the Prism system. As I write Edward Snowden is a fugitive, having given the world the slip in Moscow. The discussion over whether he should have chosen to do what he has, or whether he should have chosen another method is one for another place and another time. What I would like to do is revisit a subject I have visited before, that of privacy. Privacy is something we seem to have much less of than we used to. This is an age of social media, ad network and website tracking. Data on our habits and personal information is worth big money to the right people, this is money they seem determined to have. Many of the services we take for granted thrive on this trade, while they don’t hide the fact, in my opinion they don’t make it as plain as they could. A simple principle here is that if you didn’t pay for the service, then you are the product not the customer. When concerned about privacy, you will often find a response stating that if you nothing to hide, why worry? This fallacy casts the privacy advocate in a very negative light and does nothing at all to help the debate. Those with nothing to hide should still be very worried by the erosion of their privacy.
Firstly, everyone has things that they consider none of anyone’s business. There are financial arrangements, family matters, private health concerns. These things are rightly considered private and for a corporation to try to profit from them is the height of bad taste. If a person were facing mental health issues, mounting debt worries or dealing with a sick or dying relative, would anyone honestly consider it right for someone to profiteer from this information?
Secondly, consider the problem of fraud and identity theft. Your personal information, bank account details, online passwords and other such things are very much in demand from online criminals. Would anyone possessed of even a modicum of common sense suggest that you should store these details openly and in plain view? Of course not, they are kept private and with good reason.
Thirdly, the person asking is often considered to be a representative of the authorities. Now, why wouldn’t you hand over this information to them? Well, they’re just human, far from perfect and information gathered can be misplaced. Consider the very serious lapses of data security that have happened in recent years, like laptops and memory sticks left in taxis, etc.
Fourthly, it’s not just individuals, but companies too. How many companies would give up all their secrets? Suppose we asked a Managing Director to post the company’s customer list on their website along with invoicing details for each customer. What about research details for new products or details of sales leads? How many do you think would agree to publicise any of this?
The truth is that we all have a lot more to worry about than Big Brother. Speaking as someone who works in IT, I will now don my business hat for a minute. If you resell or scrap an old computer, do you make sure that the hard drive is properly wiped? You should, because your personal information can still be recovered by a fraudster. If a PC is sent for repair, then I can guarantee you that there are many PC techs out there who will consider it their right to a copy of your MP3 purchases. All of this should worry you. This is why things like encryption, drive wiping and other security practices should be more widespread. The concern about electronic privacy isn’t about having something to hide; it’s about basic data hygiene practices, fraud protection and peace of mind. I’d like to close the post with a few of links that I think are relevant, one of them highly topical.
Various pieces of software and plugins to help protect your online privacy.
The blog of Michael Horowitz, this is well worth a read.
The website of the security researcher Steve Gibson, this has some great tools.
This has been quite a hot topic in the UK recently. In light of tonight’s vote in the UK House of Commons, I’ve brought an old post out of the archives and am re-presenting it. We have made considerable progress on the rights of gay people and the differently gendered, in my view we should be pleased with how far we’ve come.
The opposition to gay marriage seems to me to be mostly religious conservatives, I’ve seen no secular opposition or religious liberal opposition. To my eyes, this opposition seems to be based on two arguments. The first is an argument from religious dogma, which boils down to what the religious book says. The second is based on an idea of the ownership of marriage by the religious. Note that I avoid naming a specific religion, this is a deliberate choice on my part as I think my comments are applicable to more than one faith.
Let’s look at the first argument, the argument from dogma. This really isn’t an argument, I’ve taken aim at religious dogma so often in the past that you can probably guess what I’m going to say here. This dogma is the unverified writings of a stone age priesthood, whatever it says was not written with a modern audience (or the modern world) in mind. I can assert this as the writer could not have known the future and so couldn’t be expected to anticipate the world these writings now find themselves in. What we have is two people in love, trying to be happy together, being blocked by some stone age dogma of highly dubious origin and transmission. Remember, the only claim this dogma has to authority is the idea that it’s the unaltered world of a god. I’ve aimed at that before, and will cover that ground again no doubt. On a personal level, I am mystified why it should be called “Gay Marriage”, or even “Marriage”, wouldn’t you want to lose the religious baggage that this label brings with it?
The second argument is that the religions they think they own marriage. No, I am not making this up. The argument is that because the word “Marriage” is defined in their religious texts which pre date the modern state, then the state cannot redefine them. Let’s look at this claim. The notion of marriage is recorded by the ancient Greeks, but we know that the Sumerians (3000 – 2000 BCE) had marriages. I think this casts doubt on the idea being exclusively owned by any current “in play” religion. Same sex unions are recorded during the Zhou (1046 – 260 BC) and Ming (1368 – 1644 AD) dynasties in China and in also Rome (the Emperor Nero). I think this disproves any idea that it’s purely a modern phenomenon.
For my part, I know that the world is in constant change. History flows like water, the evolution of the definition of marriage is simply that flow. It has changed between civilisations over time and will, no doubt, continue to do so. The institution of marriage is defined by the people in the marriages, they do this every day with the Karma they create through their actions and interactions. These ripples spread into the world, as if in a pool, not owned by either a religious institution or the state. This is about the right of two people in love to join together and make a formal commitment. That love and that commitment are what’s important, not the arguments surrounding a religious institution or secular state based view of marriage.
Finally, a quick note on the religious definition of marriage as “one man and one woman”. In the Bible, the old Testament prophets are show as having more than one wife. In both Exodus (21:10) and Deuteronomy (17:17 & 21:15-17) instructions are given for how they are to be treated. So, even the bible violates that definition.
It’s been an interesting week over here from my perspective. I watched with interest as the European Court ruled on the cases of four Christians. Two of them had been refused permission to wear crosses by their employers. Two others had found their duties as employees to be at odds with their faith. All of them had applied to employment tribunals, all of these appeals had been rejected. In the case of one woman, the court found that banning her from wearing a cross did infringe her rights. The others lost their cases.
This is being reported on from both the secular and religious camps. As someone with an eye on both, I can see both points of view. On the Christian side, they feel they’re being discriminated against for practising their faith. On the secular side, one more unwarranted privilege of religious faith is filleted away. From my more eastern flavoured perspective, this is a mixed result, but ultimately one that has a silver lining. The lady who won her case did so justly, in my opinion. There was no defensible ground to ask her to remove the cross. I think this sets a precedent that reaches beyond the Christian faith and advances the rights of the individual.
The other results may seem hard to find a silver lining in. After all they lost, didn’t they? Yes, in court. But there is, I think, a silver lining here. That lining is a chance to realise the practise of compassion. The three other cases were a registrar who refused to marry same sex couples. Someone who could not wear a cross on health and safety grounds, and a sex therapist who would not see same sex couples. The therapist and the registrar are the two cases I would like to comment on.
When exploring religions and religious thought we keep coming across compassion. It is considered as one of the greatest virtues in most of them. That’s not to say that the religions monopolise it, far from it, but it is a constant thread in them. But, what happens when your faith clashes with the things that life expects of you? In this instance you are called to counsel those in need or to officiate at a happy occasion and your faith stands in the way? My answer is that the needs of reality must come first, but by showing compassion here, you are in fact strengthening the practise of your faith. There is a Christian saying; “Hate the sIn, love the sinner”. This is the direction I wish to indicate. By refusing to help on “faith grounds”, you miss a chance to put compassion into practise.
I have always considered the Buddha’s view on religious teaching to be the correct one. They’re like a raft carrying you across a river, when you reach the other side you are wise to abandon the raft as it’s done its job. While crossing, don’t cling too tight to the raft. I interpret this as saying that whatever your dogma, sooner or later you will have to grow beyond it. Also, remember that you will need to be flexible at times. There is a great metaphor in Taoism for this of reeds in the wind, the reeds flex in a wind and so survive while a solidly inflexible tree risks being uprooted or broken. Though a quote from the Tao Te Ching illustrates what I mean.
While alive, the body is soft and pliant
When dead, it is hard and rigid
All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down
The big and forceful occupy a lowly position
While the soft and pliant occupy a higher place
(Tao Te Ching. Ch 76. Derek Lin Translation courtesy of Truetao,org)
So, while this may all look like a defeat, I do find a silver lining and the hope that it might lead to a more flexible public interaction between faith and society.