The government wants to know who is calling whom. According to leaks earlier this month, the National Security Agency has been collecting metadata—data about data from phone companies, Internet service providers, and social media sites. Instead of reading our e-mail or listening to our phone calls, they are looking for patterns in who associates with whom.
Powerful computers allow for massive amounts of data to be analyzed quickly. Target, for example, uses the buying habits of its customers to identify pregnant women, since new parents are particularly good customers. Netflix can predict what movies you will rate highly based on how your ratings line up with other customers. The Democratic Party used every available database to figure what messages would get individual voters to the polls for Obama. Google, the king of data, can predict all kinds of events using search data like stock market crashes, the spread of the flu, the success of movies, and countless other things. Paying attention to patterns at a level of detail that unaided human beings aren’t capable of, allows these data experts to connect seemingly unrelated things and make use of what is revealed.
The government wants to use the same techniques on an even larger scale to predict and hopefully prevent terrorist attacks. The stockpile of the metadata they have been gathering will give them tremendous capabilities.
Governments have been using information to gain control for as long as they have been around. King David incurred God’s wrath, because he had the audacity to number God’s people (2 Sm 24, 1 Chr 21). If David knew how large the tribe was, he could use that information for taxation, administration, and battle preparations. But Israel was God’s people, not David’s. David repented and accepted punishment.
Human rulers want knowledge to gain control, but God has all knowledge and he already is in control. As he told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” (Jer 1:15). God knows us, because he is the cause our being.
While the idea of Big Brother watching over us is scary, and while we can debate how much privacy and freedom can be taken away in the name of safety, we have nothing to fear from God’s knowledge of our every thought. It is from God’s knowledge that we exist at all. We only have freedom because God knows and loves us.
If the architects of this surveillance program think they can know everything, they are like the builders of the Tower of Babel. Only God can know all that is.
Image: Mary Cassatt, Young Woman Picking the Fruit of Knowledge