Supporting Article

Information, Relationships, and Confidentiality

The rise of information technology at the end of the 20th century radically transformed the relationship between technology and culture. Whereas we used to fit technology to the needs of the culture, today the culture does whatever the technology makes possible. In this sense, technology controls culture.

This technology is itself in a constant state of change, similar to a biological organism. It grows and dies exponentially and becomes significant long before it is either large or old. In the economy of today’s technology, what is plentiful (as opposed to what is rare) is valuable. The more widely a technology is used, the more valuable it becomes. A case in point would be the fax machine. If one were to own the world’s only fax machine, it would be useless, as it could not be used to communicate with anyone else. However, as the number of available fax machines increases, so does their value.

A corollary here is that the more connected the technology is, the greater its value becomes. Information hoarded on one computer is not nearly as valuable as information shared with the larger community. In a strange way, selfishness is being redefined as “feeding the network,” for the larger the network becomes, the more personal benefit one can derive from it.

This evolving relationship between technology and culture has significant implications for the body of Christ as it seeks to harness the benefits of information technology in fulfillment of its mission, whether in China or elsewhere.

What Are Computers Good for?

Computers are useful in fulfilling two basic functions: tracking information and facilitating relationships. God’s purpose for today’s interactive technology is to provide a set of tools to help build relationships between real people. This new organ for the body of Christ—a “digital nervous system”—enables us to know more of what is happening around the world and to coordinate our activities accordingly. If we find that our use of the computers and related technology is actually impeding our personal relationships then it is time to step back and ask whether they are really serving their intended purpose.

Email communication needs to be viewed as a conversation rather than an exchange of correspondence. The key to managing email effectively is to treat it as a means of informal communication, like a telephone call, and to respond rapidly.

The growing role of the World Wide Web (Ignore it at your peril!) illustrates the changes being wrought through advances in information technology. The primary source of information for a new generation, the Web is capable of providing fresh, concise, and clear information. The challenge is to be effective, not frantic, with the exponential increase in information. In addition to being a source of information, the Web allows for virtual communities and opens up new possibilities for maintaining and improving relationships with a large portion of the body of Christ. Communication in the 21st century involves online teamwork supported by a variety of new tools. Email conferences, virtual offices, and shared calendars and contact managers are already common in today’s cyber work world. In the not-so-distant future we may expect further support for networks of relationships. Online negotiating networks will facilitate complex interactions between individuals. Online meetings, with real time video and audio, will become much more of a possibility even for smaller organizations, and portable presentation technologies, such as laptop computers with digital cameras and projectors, will also become more accessible.

Responsible Information Management

The exponential growth of information and increased ease of access to that information raises legitimate security concerns for those who use information technology. By thinking through which information needs to be available to whom and when, we can reduce the risk of information being used in ways that would prove embarrassing—or worse. In doing so, we need to have realistic expectations of our staff and systems and know the limits of both.

We first need to ask what is at stake. What would be the consequences if certain information were to get beyond its intended users? Some information simply should never be put on a computer (particularly if that computer is going to be taken into places where the information could become a liability). In fact, if it can be handled without the use of a computer, then a non-technical solution is preferable.

Keep the scope of what is to be considered confidential as narrow as possible. Differentiate between the various kinds of information involved: our information versus the information of those outside our organization or network; information used inside the country versus outside; information flowing in versus flowing out, and so on.

The question of who to share information with is complex, as most of us work within networks and belong to multiple overlapping communities of interest. This requires clear guidelines and understanding within these networks these networks and communities, as the community of knowledge can grow very rapidly and unknowingly.

It is also important to think about the lifespan of a given piece of information. Once it is residing on someone else’s computer, we have no control over where it will end up and when. Will the other person remember which information was supposed to be confidential and which was not? At what point will a piece of information cease to be confidential?

When it comes to protecting information as it is transmitted from one place to another, perhaps the first rule of thumb is to be innocuous—to hide in a crowd. One message among millions in the flow of daily communications is less likely to be singled out for scrutiny if the parties involved are friendly toward their host government and assume that it is aware of their activities. At the same time, prudent steps taken to protect the confidentiality of electronic communications need not draw unwanted attention. The business world has a legitimate need to guard its communications and has developed widely accepted protocols for doing so. These commonly used methods may be utilized without fear of raising undue suspicion.

Some Guidelines for Responsible Information Management

  1. Plan proactively; failures usually occur due to inadequate processes.
  2. Look for gaping holes in our armor. Most vulnerabilities are quite simple (such as publishing information that should never get into print in the first place.
  3. Keep a human in the loop in order to deal creatively with unanticipated situations.
  4. Defer to local leadership when working cross-culturally; what may be of no consequence to you may have serious consequences for them.
  5. Do not reveal more than can be agreed upon by the whole organization or network.

Check your motivation for revealing information. Is there a legitimate need to know, or are we using the information for its fund-raising value or to enhance our credibility?

Image credit: Keyboard (Note Chinese symbols) by Ash Kyd via Flickr.
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Peter Holzmann

Peter Holzmann is president of ICTA, the International Christian Technologists Association. View Full Bio