The following was my talk at theology pub in Richmond Hill, Ontario, January 12, 2014. I spoke on the theology of privacy.
I observe two contradictory trends today: on the one hand, our culture really believes in the notion of privacy–perhaps best exemplified by Pierre Trudeau in 1969:
There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. I think that what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.
He said this in regard to Bill C-150 which decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. On the other hand, many of us voluntarily relinquish our privacy through social media and our governments gather our private information without search warrants or probable cause. To understand how great the erosion of privacy rights is, just today I learned that the US border patrol, operating 30 miles inside the US border, arrested Greg Rosenberg an American of Armenian origin for refusing to cooperate with a search of his truck without probable cause. Then, after 19 days, the authorities just simply released Rosenberg dropping all charges.
Here in Canada, the Canadian government required that one out of five households fill out the 2011 Census “long form”, which included questions about what race we are and our sexual orientation. So much for the government staying out of the bedroom of Canadians. Gay activists were the most vocal complainers when the Tory government removed this form. Evidently, they thought that sexual orientation information in the hands of the government could only help their groups. A more pessimistic view of government would suggest that knowing personal data about people makes them vulnerable to special treatment. But I don’t want the attention of government and I would prefer to be invisible.
To wit, the Canadian government, as of July 1, 2014, has singled out certain people for special treatment in the area of banking privacy. The Stephen Harper government has passed legislation authorizing banks to collect information on people with alleged ties to the United States. The banks are to pass their financial data to the CRA which will in turn send that information to the IRS. On the face of it, this is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on several fronts. But clearly, the victims of this legislation will have their Canadian banking privacy violated with the authorization of Canadian law.
I want to discuss a theology of privacy tonight: Do Christians believe in privacy? What are the limits of privacy? In order to achieve this end, I want to discuss positive law and natural law as the theoretical basis of privacy.
Positive law as the basis of Privacy
Tyrants pass executive orders or edicts–their word has the effect of law. Legislatures write and pass bills into law. These man-made ordinances are called positive law. For example, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) is a law in Canada which governs privacy rights. However, if positive law were the basis of privacy, the government could just as easily create rules taking all privacy away–but that would not make such laws appropriate. So around the world, many societies have put into place safeguards against the violation of rights through positive laws. These declarations often imply that their texts do not so much create rights so much as explicitly set out and acknowledge human rights in order to prevent their violation by governments.
Natural law as the basis of Privacy
Natural law is the idea that nature endows human beings with rights. These rights include everything necessary to live freely–the ability to breath, eat, work, and not least of all, to accumulate wealth so as to meet those other needs. In the Judeo-Christian world-view, God endows humans with these rights. In atheistic world-view, man’s nature endows him with these rights. Since we need to breathe, eat, as well as clothe and shelter ourselves, we have the right to obtain and accumulate. The right to privacy is ultimately the right to private property.
The Bible affirms the right to privacy in the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc. These commandments prevent other human beings and associations of human beings such as gangs, criminal syndicates, multi-national corporations, and governments, from violating private property rights.
Banking privacy and the Castle Doctrine
The concept of privacy has its basis in private ownership. If the authorization of the king to come into your house and make an inventory of your goods implies two basic premises: (1) the king is only making an inventory for his own purposes, in case he needs something; (2) ultimately what is in your house belongs to the king. Thus, the concept of privacy is long established in English law with the Castle Doctrine: A man’s house is his castle. The king has no business there, because what is in the castle belongs to its private owner. The limit to this rule, of course, is that if the authorities have reasonable cause to suspect that a crime has been committed, they may obtain a warrant to search the house.
Banking privacy is really thus an extension of the Castle Doctrine. The IRS has no right to know what is in the bank accounts of Canadians because we have the right to private property. Stephen Harper has procured a law written by human hands that takes away the privacy rights of certain Canadians, those with alleged ties to the United States–but he does not have the authority to do that. Privacy is a right given to us by God, enshrined on tablets of stone, written by God’s own finger.
This warrantless grab for information by the United States government in Canada is particularly foolish considering that even the Canadian government is not entitled to our bank account information except as it pertains to pertinent taxable events: e.g., dividends, interest, sales of stocks–these are reported on T5 and annual stock trading statements without also passing on the account balance or the account holdings. To obtain bank account information, even the Canadian government requires a warrant.