George Clooney loses sleep over bad reviews of his movies. Angelina Jolie is a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” Tom Hanks checks into hotels as Johnny Madrid. You know by now, I’m sure, that a group calling themselves Guardians of Peace hacked Sony’s computers, obtained a massive amount of private and internal data, and released it to the public. The media has had a field day sorting through it, digging up the dirt, and sending it out to an eager public.
The majority of this information is mundane, of course. But then there are the few pieces that are downright incendiary. I guess it is somehow entertaining to read about the foibles of the big stars and satisfying to see a massive corporation take a hit. But this hack should cause us all to pause and consider.
Sony’s nightmare proves one thing beyond any doubt: There is an imbalance between our ability to create digital information and our ability to protect it. We create digital data all day and every day. Every email, every Facebook update, every Tweet, every photo, every Google doc—it’s all out there, and it all remains out there. But there’s far more than that. Every Google search, every phone call, every Facebook profile search, every place you take your mobile phone, every purchase you make, every scan of your loyalty card—every bit of it is collected and stored somewhere. We trust that it is all stored safely. But what happens when it’s not?
When I think about all of this information from Sony, it is not the megastar temper tantrums that stand out, and it is not the details of new movies. What intimidates me most is the very ordinary people whose lives have suddenly been exposed. An article at Gizmodo (language warning) says it well:
The most painful stuff in the Sony cache is a doctor shopping for Ritalin. It’s an email about trying to get pregnant. It’s shit-talking coworkers behind their backs, and people’s credit card log-ins. It’s literally thousands of Social Security numbers laid bare. It’s even the harmless, mundane, trivial stuff that makes up any day’s email load that suddenly feels ugly and raw out in the open, a digital Babadook brought to life by a scorched earth cyberattack.
And that’s just it. The biggest victims here are the ordinary, low-level employees who represent the collateral damage—people who were doing normal things in the normal way, but who suddenly had it all laid bare. People who are just like you and me. Their shame has become our entertainment.
This digital world brings us some amazing new capabilities, but every big technological shift also brings us serious risks and vulnerabilities. You can see those vulnerabilities all over the headlines today. We need to decide whether information that has been made public should really be considered public. We need to decide what it means to think and behave as Christians in this area. Is it okay to declare open season on public information?
I have no skeletons in my closet. I have no deep and dark secrets that would ruin me if they leaked out. But still, the thought of my emails being made public, and the thought of you combing through them looking for dirt (because you sure wouldn’t go combing through them looking for grace, would you?) is terrifying. Too-quick comments, private jokes, thoughtless replies, unformed thoughts, out-of-context humor, romantic sweet nothings, bad days and ugly words—they would all be there, I’m sure. It is all there in the mundane day-to-day emails that receive little more than a moment’s thought and are immediately erased from my memory. I can barely imagine the sense of dread and the vulnerability that would come, knowing that people were clicking through one after the other after the other. I don’t need to have deep and dark secrets—buried in these tens of thousands of mundane messages would be more than enough to expose things I don’t even know about myself, and things you have no right to know about me.
It is only a matter of time before something like this happens to someone you know. At some point you may well be faced with the opportunity to go rooting through another person’s emails after they have been hacked and made public. So let me ask: Will you read those emails? Will you read your pastor’s emails if they are suddenly available to the public? Will you read your favorite celebrity preacher’s emails if they are just a click or two away? Will you read your least-favorite Christian celebrity’s emails if they are there for the taking? Will they read your emails?
The time to decide is right now, not in that moment. At that moment it may already be too late.