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Analytics & Data Security & Privacy Tech & Society

Saving our Souls in the Digital Age

Karl Marx described religion as the “opium of the people” – an obstacle to freedom creating an “illusory happiness” that made people forget to fight for their rights.  If he was alive today, he might say the same of the digital devices that stick our eyes to our palms. Religion is something so powerful that it propelled the Pilgrim Fathers to set out across the ocean when faced with religious intolerance in Europe. And it is in prayer that many feel most deeply and spiritually human.  That is why, as faith moves online, religious belief is ripe for exploitation by the technological gods of the 21st century. As the National Prayer Breakfast goes virtual for 2021, the links between faith and technology can shine a light on broader issues about the way our data reveals our inner lives.

Recent reports in Motherboard have revealed that personal data from Muslim prayer apps with millions of users worldwide was being shared with the US Government. As Muslims around the world kneeled down to pray, it was not only their God who was listening. Data from an app gives much more information than simple religious affiliation. It tells companies, and governments, when a person prays, how often, and who with, building up an intimate picture of who they are and how they think and feel. The ACLU has issued a FOIA request to find out exactly how and why US Government agencies are using that information.  With the potential for digital strip searches at borders and the increasing use of mass surveillance tools worldwide, the risks of installing a prayer app on your smartphone – a modern-day window into our souls – are not limited to that guilty feeling you may get when the app reminds you that you forgot your prayers.

And this is not only an issue for Muslims. The recent Amazon documentary “People You May Know” revealed how churches use big data and social networks to identify vulnerable people who may be open to outreach. Reaching out the hand of Christian charity may be a positive thing. But the problem is the potential weaponization of these networks to drive a political agenda. The reach of big data into our daily lives means your search for marriage guidance could set off a chain reaction through the church fete straight to the voting booth and on through to a march on the Capitol.

There is a reason why the Catholic Church coined the term “propaganda” in the 17th Century. And “In God we trust” was the first motto of the United States emblazoned, tellingly, on the currency.  Religion, politics, and power are never far apart and religious propaganda is particularly potent. When a Catholic Archbishop wrote that “The fate of the whole world is being threatened by a global conspiracy against God and humanity” there is no doubt this gave the online QAnon conspiracy theory a huge boost.  In the era of big data and disinformation online, it has never been easier to find and harness lost souls en masse. But what does this technological advance into our souls mean for our human rights?

Freedom of religion, conscience and belief is protected in international human rights law (for example in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). While limitations on the manifestation of religion or belief may be permissible, the right to inner freedom is different – international law permits no justification for interfering in the sacred space inside our minds.  Where the line around that inner space is drawn is therefore a crucial question.  But in the digital age, it is a thorny one.

It is not only prayer apps that give windows into our souls (Motherboard has highlighted several other apps including step counters that reveal more than you may think) but the fact that such a window into users’ spiritual lives exists at all is a wake-up call for the need to protect our inner worlds in the digital space. Technologists claim to have access to our thoughts and inclinations based on the mass of data we produce on a constant basis. And direct access to the inner thoughts of anyone should be a matter of concern to everyone. 

Technology has allowed people to continue their religious practice in community with others in the virtual world providing a safe space from Covid. But the inferences that can be drawn about our inner states and the ways they can be monetized are increasingly complex and equally dangerous. In December, the Federal Trade Commission ordered nine tech companies to reveal how they exploit user data to “lift the hood” on exactly how personal our data can be. The EU is developing regulation through the Digital Services Act.  And the UK Government has promised an Online Harms Bill this year.  As spirituality, faith, and disinformation spread virally online, it is no longer enough to trust in God to save our souls, let us pray that law and regulation around the world will be up to the task.

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Susie Alegre is an international human rights lawyer and Associate at Doughty Street Chambers.  Her work on freedom of thought in the digital age has appeared in op-eds in Prospect, the Irish Times and the Sydney Morning Herald and featured in BBC Radio 4’s documentary series “Forum Internum”.
www.susiealegre.com

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