(RNS) — In his 1993 book “Technopoly,” American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote, “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing.” The subsequent three decades have proved Postman to be something of a prophet.
While technology has made our lives faster and more efficient, it also has been used to commit crimes and perpetuate unspeakable human rights abuses.
Religious freedom advocates like myself can testify to this fact. Known human rights abusers like China and India are closely tracking citizens’ social media posts and often take legal action against those who share government criticism online. Saudi Arabia has deployed insidious spyware against its dissidents and Kazakhstan is experimenting with mass-surveillance technology as a pathway to censoring religious minorities.
These widespread abuses warrant decisive action from so-called big tech and from democratic governments like ours, but they also should be of concern to anyone with a smartphone. Here are five tech innovations being used to identify, surveil and punish religious minorities worldwide:
Once reserved for bank vaults and criminal databases, biometric identification data is now being collected on a scale never before imagined. Fingerprints and facial scans are now being used to unlock smartphones. This information can be weaponized by those who wish to suppress ethnic and religious dissidents. China, for example, has used DNA samples to imprison Uyghur citizens and facial recognition technology to target religious minorities.
Advanced spyware is now capable of monitoring and recording virtually any activity on the devices it infects. Phone calls, keystrokes, live video and ambient audio are all fair game to whoever has the means and motivation to deploy malware. Its current list of customers includes governments of countries with long histories of human rights violations, five of which are also ranked by Open Doors USA, the organization I lead, as the world’s most severe persecutors of Christians.
Smartphone location settings are convenient enough for estimated arrival times and local restaurant recommendations, but these data are also being used to track and identify churchgoers. Entire communities of faith can be implicated as threats to the state simply by the proximity of their phones to one another.
Religious and political movements spread online, but they lose momentum when members cannot communicate freely. Authoritarian states are silencing critics by flagging religious language as politically threatening. In Iran, an army of 42,000 volunteers acts as cyber police to monitor and report religious language and material. People of faith, journalists and activists are commonly forced to communicate in code online in order to evade detection and censorship.
These tools are powerful enough in isolation, but together they make the practice of faith virtually impossible to hide. Cameras on Chinese streets record movements, correlated with cameras inside church buildings. That footage can identify churchgoers by using facial recognition technology, which can then link to the rest of their online footprint.
Simple activities like looking up a passage of Scripture or giving money to any faith-affiliated cause can be flagged by the Public Security Bureau’s online database, simply for being religiously motivated. These interactions establish a digital network of offline relationships, enabling authorities to swiftly suppress large pockets of “threatening” activity.
Churchgoers in China are no longer anonymous. I have personally worshipped among them, in church pews lined beneath rows of security cameras, and I’ve spoken with the Rev. Jonathan Liu, who was blacklisted and forced to leave the country for speaking online about the Communist Party’s interference into offline church services. I met with members of Early Rain, a church in Chengdu, whose homes were raided because they attended an online church service.
Surveillance states begin by claiming their efforts will protect citizens by reducing crime. But we are witnessing the rampant criminalization of faith, enabled by the smartphones in our pockets. Those of us who enjoy the right to free speech and worship must speak up online for those who can’t, motivating action on their behalf. Otherwise, we may wake to find these technologies used against us too. Who will remain to resist it then?
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @OpenDoors. For more than 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Western church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.)