On 17 March 2018, the world felt naked thanks to social media giant Facebook. It was confirmed that 87 million users’ personal information had been shared through an app developed by British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
The software asked hundreds of thousands of users to voluntarily share basic information from their Facebook accounts before completing a survey. Against Facebook’s intention, the app was then also able to gather the information of all users’ mutual friends, creating a database eventually totalling in the tens of millions.
To make matters worse, the compromised personal data was confirmed to have been used for political marketing campaigns, including Donald Trump’s 2016 election run. “To what extent can anyone online access my information?” was the general outcry from the public. The debate around online privacy re-entered the headlines this year, forcing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to apologise for the scandal before United States’ Congress on 10 April.
The debate around privacy has a long and chequered history. Leaks of private information are sometimes justified by pointing out that the person surrendered their information willingly in the first place. When this information is used to tailor advertising in political campaigns, most people will cry foul.
But when the government justifies spying on its citizens to stop terrorism and keep the public safe, drawing the line is more difficult. “The government has no right to know my private online information,” some say. “But,” others counter, “I’ve got nothing to hide—I’m not interesting enough. And if it stops a terror attack, I don’t see any problem.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t trust the internet. Eagle-eyed users noticed a background detail in his 21 June 2016 Facebook post: the camera on his computer was covered by a sticker, ostensibly to prevent anyone from hacking or watching him. This behaviour comes from a public figure who has unprecedented access to the data of 2.23 billion people on the planet, and counting.
And there’s good reason for it. In 2013, the world woke up to news of NSA leaks and claims the US government agency was spying on the public. Sub-contractor Edward Snowden had borne witness to these mass surveillance programs and forwarded the information to the press. Phone lines were being tapped, emails were being read remotely, and personal data was being mined from the records of large internet firms, including Facebook and Google. Among the codenames were “Prism” and “XKeyscore:” programs that allow for complete surveillance of any individual on the planet.
Edward Snowden, in an interview with German news organisation NDR, said of XKeyscore: “You can read anyone’s email in the world. Anybody you’ve got an email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from, any computer that an individual sits at, you can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one stop shop for access to the NSA’s information.”
The parallels with George Orwell’s post-World War II era novel, 1984, are both stark and chilling. My first reading of the masterpiece came after I’d turned 21. Having heard about it since high school, I decided to see how well the book held up. To my surprise, 1984 accurately predicts the world we live in today—from the mass surveillance of citizens, the rise of political correctness, to minutiae such as poker machines. It’s no surprise that the world we live in has been described as “Orwellian.”
All the leaks brought about a simple question: are we in control of our own privacy? We gauge our safety on Facebook’s limited privacy settings, but is there a greater spiritual war factoring into this?
Without delving into conspiracies, of which there are many, it’s fair to say that our world is headed for a dystopian future. The Bible tells us in detail about the closing chapters of earth’s history and mankind’s destiny. For those who accept Christ and follow Him, the ancient Scriptures predict a time when believers will not only be watched, but also persecuted.
When Jesus was sitting with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, He foretold a time of difficulty in response to a question about “. . . the sign of [His] coming and the end of the age. . .” (Matthew 24:3). His first prophecies detail the rise of false messiahs, wars, and natural disasters. Thereafter, He said that God’s people will be “. . . handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (verse 9). It’s scary to consider that there will be a time when nearly everyone will be deceived and will look to hunt down God’s people. Jesus added that they will have to “flee to the mountains” (verse 16) as a matter of urgency.
While the Bible predicts that almost the entire population of the planet will be persecuting God’s people, it’s conceivable to foresee that every possible asset will be used against them. In an age where our activities can be so easily tracked and recorded by corporations and governments, one can only imagine what the future will hold in the time before Jesus’ return.
But there is hope for enduring this final test. While all of the signs are described as being merely the “beginning of birth pains” (verse 8), Jesus also said “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (verse 13). What is the reward for continuing on God’s side?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:10–12).
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Is there any value in researching conspiracy theories about internet tracking and government programs? These preoccupations can distract us from the greater goal of maintaining our personal relationship with God. At the end of the day, knowledge of end-time signs will not save us—only a personal connection with the Father will. But to be naïve is also unwise; the Bible does say that Jesus will “. . . come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so not as to go naked and be shamefully exposed” (Revelation 16:15).
This doesn’t necessarily mean we should deactivate our social media accounts and seclude ourselves from society in readiness for the impending crisis. Does the Bible hint that online technologies will help share the gospel in the end time? The gospel that will be “. . . preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
Never has there been a time as interconnected as our current internet age, when sharing God’s Word online can have such massive reach. But to assume that we are in control is false—there is a spiritual battle going on behind the scenes—we only get glimpses. It’s encouraging to know, however, that ultimately God is the Victor and Saviour of His people.
Daniel Kuberek spends way too much time on social media, both in his personal life and as assistant editor of Signs of the Times. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.