St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

A Little Bit of Data Protection of Our Own:
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Of Data Protection, Photos and Compassion

During the past few months we have been familiarising ourselves with the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force on 25 May 2018. We have dutifully completed online courses to ensure we understand most of what we are dealing with, redrafted our web site Privacy Statements, deleted old contact lists, prepared new sign-up forms for our newsletters*, found keys to locks we never thought of using before and generally tried to make sure we are doing what we ought. As we have no intention of sharing any personal information with others nor any thought of marketing anything, it has seemed at times an enormous waste of effort; but it is the law, and we must obey. The question, as so often, is: cui bono? Who will actually benefit from what we are doing?

In our case, my own answer is a rather doubtful one because of the very limited amount of information we hold, but lack of privacy and the exploitation of personal data is fast becoming a major problem in society. No matter how careful we are as individuals, it seems we are always on the verge of having our identities stolen or becoming the victims of fraud, and there are remarkably few ways of obtaining redress.

The trouble is that at exactly the same time as we are trying to make life more secure in one way (data protection laws), we are effectively undermining personal security in another. It has become commonplace to photograph everything from the food on our plate to what we see in the street and to upload the results to one of the many sites that are basically image collections. The idea of asking permission rarely seems to occur to anyone. As you can imagine, we sometimes get snapped as we go about our lawful occasions (the habit is a big draw) and I often want to ask the photographers whether they realise that what they are doing is an invasion of privacy and might even be putting someone at risk (e.g. our car has a distinctive number plate). I think we can handle that, but not everyone could; and it is naive to think that anything posted online is somehow ‘anonymous’ or untraceable, as many have found to their cost.

Data protection laws are fine, but wouldn’t it be better to try to create a culture of thoughtfulness towards others which takes into account people’s need for privacy and security? The individual bears as much responsibility as an organization does in this respect, but it isn’t really something we can legislate for — and anyway, who would want to do that?

Thoughtfulness is one of the qualities we admire in others, but how often do we make the connection with almsgiving (from the Greek for showing mercy or compassion, i.e. fellow-feeling) and link it with what we are about during Lent? Being compassionate towards others is an essential part of our Lenten discipline and it extends beyond giving money or time to good causes. It means adopting a particular way of living, of being always concerned about others and doing what is best for them rather than ourselves. It may seem slightly absurd to associate taking a photo without permission/thought of the consequences with compassion, but unless we make the connection those of us who love taking photos may find that we have failed to protect others from an unwarranted intrusion into their lives, that we have been perpetrators of a wrong. Put like that, isn’t it worth thinking first?

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