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Over the years, the following essay migrated from one Web site to another. When I discovered that it had apparently disappeared completely from the Web, I located a copy on the Internet Archive. To preserve public access to this excellent essay, I have placed this copy on my own Web site.

Father Bill Morton was an Anglican parish priest in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada. (In the United States, we use the term "Episcopal Church" rather than "Anglican Church".) He used encryption to "hear" confessions via e-mail. His essay explains why nothing sinister should be inferred when someone wants to keep his or her E-mail private.

Father Morton said:

All of my Net contacts live far away. If they can, most people prefer face to face. The interesting thing is that most of the people who want to make some sort of personal contact on the Net don't want to run the risk of a face to face contact. It's an interesting effect that I haven't figured out. People on the Net seem to just want to be heard.
And PGP encryption software makes this possible — without Father Morton breaking his promise of confidentiality.

The essay existed on another Web site as early as June 2002 and on yet another Web site before then. Father Morton is no longer in Campbellton, New Brunswick; and I am unable to determine where he is or if he is still alive. I believe that Father Morton exists since he was the subject of an article in the Los Angeles Times. He may have moved from Campbellton to Fredericton, New Brunswick, in 2008.

If the spelling, syntax, or other parts of the text seem strange to U.S. readers, remember that Father Morton is Canadian.

Copyright © 2009 by David E. Ross
(covering only the contents of this box)

God and PGP vs. the Snoopy Grey People:
How Secure E-Mail Helps Me Keep My Vows

By Father William J. Morton

Communication, confidentiality and encryption.

Let's start with a simple syllogism:

  1. Communication that leads to healing and wholeness is rooted in trust.
  2. Trust requires confidentiality.
  3. Therefore, communication which leads to healing and wholeness requires confidentiality.

It's as simple as that. It is my experience as a parish priest that none of the problems of life can be worked out by the individual operating alone. Essentially, we need to know that there is one other person who knows what we are going through and has compassion for us. Beyond that there are the healing aspects of a relationship which is built on trust.

However, before we share our darkest secrets or heaviest burdens with someone else we must trust that person. Trust means that we expect the other person to do us no harm. Specifically when it comes to "telling things" it means that we expect the other person to keep their mouth shut.

For many years I have maintained confidentiality concerning things that are told to me. Sometimes the people who have accepted that confidentiality have grown in their trust and have been able to deal with the major issues in their lives.

If the Internet is expected to transform personal communication then confidentiality must be guaranteed. The only way that confidentiality can be assured is strong encryption in the hands and machines of every person. The flow of personal information through cyberspace would be just too tempting for the grey people.

The grey people are the bureaucrats. They are the ones who equate confidentiality with secrecy. Secrecy implies conspiracy in the bureaucrat's mind. It is the mindset of the information gatherer, the filer, the sorter, the tracker, the little grey person in a little grey cell. "If it is hidden from me it must be secret and therefore it must be important." The little grey person deals with secrets all day long. Sorts them, collates them, files them with a clockish soul. "Here is the secret of the new bomb, stamped and filed with death. Here is the diplomat's secret negotiation, indexed and cross referenced with destruction. Here is a secret I cannot see, here is a code I cannot break, it must be pried at and loosened and brought into the light of my gaze. It is a danger to my ability to file and track, sort and index."

A little too Kafkaesque? Perhaps. Is there a difference between privacy, confidentiality and secrecy? Is one good and the other bad? Our society is based on secrecy. We trust priests to keep the secret of our confession. Priests take vows to maintain the secrecy, the sanctity of the confession. We trust lawyers and doctors to maintain the secrecy of our confidences. And if we are to trust the 'net to carry those confidences then we must have PGP and other forms of strong encryption.

That is certainly true from an Anglican perspective. We have a strong tradition of the use of the letter as a means of spiritual guidance, confession-related or otherwise. Actually this tradition goes deep into the roots of the Catholic Church. Some of the books regarded as "spiritual classics" are compilations of correspondence between a person and their spiritual director. Until the advent of PGP, e-mail was not a suitable place for such correspondence. It's one thing to have your correspondence published 100 years after the fact; it's quite another to run the risk of having your personal thoughts posted to a Usenet newsgroup or read by the sysop of a BBS. Now people know that even if they hit the wrong button and send their e-mail to the wrong place, it is secure. Legislation that would make encryption illegal or require a mandatory back door would totally compromise any trust in e-mail or any other form of electronic text system such as word processors.

Whether in Canada or the States or Russia, whether a clergyman is doing counseling or hearing a confession, and whether the faith is Anglican or Hindu, the issues here will be the same — trust, privacy, and the dignity that arises from both. We must not ever let the grey people steal them from us.

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