Explainer: What the latest social media breach means for you

October 12, 2018

What just happened?

This week, Google revealed a data breach on it’s Google+ social network that uncovered private data for up to 500,000 of its users. The Wall Street Journal broke the story Monday and reported that Google feared making the breach public because of growing public distrust in the technology industry’s privacy policies and growing regulatory scrutiny from many governments worldwide. While the data breach did not affect nearly as many users as the Cambridge Analytica incident during the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Facebook or the revealing of data for over 87 million Facebook users earlier this year from a software glitch on public profiles, this data breach has far-reaching implications for how we interact with one another online and what types of data is collected using these “free” services.

Does this affect my personal data?

It’s currently unclear how individual users’ data has been exposed or how it may affect you. Google has said that 438 applications may have used this API (i.e., a server tool that allows software to complete an action—such as collecting data—without leaving a website). Because Google+ API’s log data is only stored for two weeks, they are unable to determine how long the problem was occuring. But the company claims no evidence has been found that any personal data was misused.

How do social media platforms track and collect our data?

Social media platforms are designed so that almost every action you take is tracked, collected, and analyzed. The words you use in writing posts or tweets, the photos you upload, the causes you like all tell the platform about your interests. For example, on Facebook when you click “like” on a brand or company, that information is used to create a consumer profile that can be used to predict your purchasing behavior.

The power of artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible for computers to compare your data with other users in order to make predictions about your behavior. As Avantika Monnappa notes, research conducted by Cambridge University and Microsoft Research show how the patterns of Facebook likes can “very accurately predict your sexual orientation, satisfaction with life, intelligence, emotional stability, religion, alcohol use and drug use, relationship status, age, gender, race, and political views—among many others.”

Rather than paying for these social media services with currency, users pay for these “free” platforms with their user-generated data. This data is then being sold to market products and services to us.

How much data is stored through these online services?

The amount of data being collected and stored on social media platforms is staggering because the number of social media users is astronomical. About three billion people—approximately half the population of Earth—uses social media, and new users are increasing at a rate of more than one million per day—an average of 14 new users every second.

Every minute on Facebook users post 510,000 comments, update 293,000 statuses, and upload 136,000 photos. Additionally, Facebook users click the “like” button on more than four million posts every minute. Instagram users post 46,740 pictures every minute, while Twitter users post 656 million tweets per day. There are also more than four million hours of content uploaded to Youtube every day, with users watching 5.97 billion hours of Youtube videos each day. The sheer amount of data being collected about you is staggering and leads many to question how this data will be used by marketers and third parties.

Why does this privacy issue matter?

Concern about privacy online is growing at an exponential rate, but some have questioned the seriousness of data collection under the banner that they have nothing to hide from a watching world. Christians need to know that nothing we have ever thought or done will escape God. But while God knows everything about us, he still loves us. God doesn’t seek to know us in order to meet a bottom line as marketers do when they collect our data. He seeks to know us because of his great love, shown to us in the person and work of his own Son. We cannot hide anything from him, and that is for our good.

But that doesn't mean that we should open up our private data for anyone to view online. Prudence demands caution, given the unknowns of who might have access to our data and how it might be used without our knowledge. It is yet to be known how this type of data will be used outside of simple marketing campaigns and online ads. With the rise of AI and algorithms, the ability for people to know the deeper details of our lives without asking us directly is alarming. This type of data has already been used to sway the outcomes of elections and will increasingly be used to motivate human behavior in ways that should make us uncomfortable.

How do I protect my privacy on social media platforms?

Any use of social media platforms can potentially expose your personal information. But there are several steps you can take to secure your data and minimize invasions of your privacy.

On Facebook: Go to the settings cog in the upper right-hand corner of your screen, then click on “Setting.” On the left side, select “Privacy.” Under “Your Activity,” edit the sections for “Who can see your future posts?” and “Limit the audience for posts you've shared with friends of friends or Public?” You might also want to change the settings under “How People Find and Contact You.”

To discover all that Facebook knows about you, go to “Settings” and select "Download a copy of your Facebook data,” then "Download Archive." When the file is ready, choose "Download Archive" again, and a file will download to your computer. Browse through that archive by opening each file inside the folder.

On Twitter: Choose “Settings and privacy” to make any necessary changes.

On Google+: Go to “Home,” then “Settings,” and make any necessary changes such as who can interact with you.

You can also download a copy of the data that Google has for you. To do that, go to here, and select the products that you want to download. Click 'Next' at the bottom of the page, and choose a file format. Select your delivery method (via link, email, etc.), and choose "Create Archive."

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24