By Diane Montagna
VATICAN CITY — As our smartphones become smarter and social media expands, so does the risk that your privacy will be increasingly breached.
In light of this, how much of a danger is it to bring your smartphone into the confessional? And what precautions can priest and penitent take?
“All phones have a microphone, and Facebook and many other phone apps require access to the microphone and camera,” said Fr. George Hajj, parish priest at St. Anthony of Padua Maronite Church in the United States. “Therefore we don’t know what technology, and in whose interest it is in, to spy and overhear what is being said in the confessional.”
For Father Andrew Pinsent, Research Director at Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, surveillance through modern technology has become so thorough that it makes Orwell’s Big Brother fears look almost quaint, like “something from the dinosaur era.” It therefore demands “extra vigilance” to ensure “proper privacy in regard to the sacraments, when matters of salvation are at stake.”
Fr. Pinsent covers cameras “that can be turned on electronically” to prevent snoopers (FBI director James Comey recently advised people to do the same thing). He also has other concerns such as built-in microphones on computers as well as mobile devices (as does Mark Zuckerberg), and the general profiling that comes with browsing. He calls e-assistants like Siri and Amazon’s Echo “simply insane from a privacy perspective.”
The problem is magnified all the more, he adds, since “a staggering variety of low-cost spyware for sale” exists which allows anyone, government or individual, to “glean information” if they are determined to do so.
Yet more and more priests are taking their phones into the confessional, because they find the portability and ease of a smartphone more practical for praying the Divine Office than carrying a hardbound book. Similarly, penitents sometimes prefer to use a phone app to make an examination of conscience before their confession, and often they bring that app with them into the confessional, to easily reference their sins.