“If I leave my laptop at a coffee shop, what’s the risk?” poses Dr. Eric Straw, Professor of Business at Corban University. “Do I just lose some data? Or will someone’s life be at risk?” Although leaving your laptop at a Starbucks in America probably wouldn’t endanger anyone’s life, the same can’t be said for every country—especially if the owner of that laptop is a Christian missionary.
This past summer, Dr. Straw asked the same question at missions conferences in Slovenia and Thailand. In his talk on digital security, Dr. Straw encouraged all missionaries to embrace a conceptual model he calls “risk assessment.” He gave the example of parking your car at the office during the day and parking your car in downtown Portland at night. In the second scenario, you might hear your mother’s voice saying, “Don’t go by yourself—take someone with you!” “And yet you go to work by yourself all the time,” Dr. Straw says, implying that we unconsciously weigh a series of factors to determine when it’s safe to travel alone and when it’s not. “Those are risk assessments.”
Levels of risk exist on a continuum, Dr. Straw explains. At the very least, missionaries will face the question “Why are you here?” They might be met with nothing more than curiosity from friends and neighbors, but missionaries will still have to decide how to answer that question. But what if “now someone’s not curious—they’re adversarial? What if it’s not just someone, it’s an adversarial group? And maybe it’s not just a group, it’s a government?” Each point on the risk continuum requires missionaries to act differently—in their day-to-day lives, but also in the digital realm. Depending on their level of risk, they may have to alter the way they post on Facebook, the way they store contact information on a laptop, or the way they communicate with friends and family back home.
Often missionaries themselves aren’t in nearly as much danger as the native-born people they’re ministering to—the locals who are attending church plants and becoming believers. “How are you keeping track of those names? How are you keeping track of those phone numbers?” Dr. Straw asks missionaries. If a government is adversarial to Christianity, then keeping track of people’s names and contact information in an insecure way could expose them to serious risk. Missionaries may need to find ways to hide that contact information, like encryption. Dr. Straw encourages missionaries to plan ahead and be wise about how they store personal information, so that if they did leave their laptop at a Starbucks, nothing bad would happen.
At the same time, Dr. Straw cautions missionaries against acting like spies. “We don’t ever want missionaries to act like spies, because they’re not spies. And in fact this is one thing that governments are concerned about.” He tells the story of a husband and wife who relocated to a new state to plant a church. Even though they were still in America, they weren’t certain they should announce to their neighbors why they’d moved. “When they finally told them, the gentleman said, ‘Well, I guess I lost the bet.’ He’d thought they were in the witness protection program!” Dr. Straw laughs, but he’s quick to add that in many countries, being seen as deceptive or suspicious might lead to more than laughter.
The question becomes, how do missionaries take care to protect sensitive information without looking suspicious? And how much can they hide about themselves or their mission without being deceptive? These are questions Dr. Straw encourages missionaries to wrestle with as they seek to maintain their integrity while protecting the people they’re witnessing to.
Educating missionaries about digital security is one thing; it’s quite another to educate Westerners back home. “We’re thankful for the privileges we have in America,” Dr. Straw notes. “You and I can have a conversation about whatever we want right here,” he says, gesturing to his sunny office. His computer is on, cell phone in sight, the door to the hallway left open. Although it wouldn’t be impossible for the government to record a conversation, we at least know the law prohibits it. But “not every country abides by privacy rights,” and access to digital communication is far too easy—from simply viewing public Twitter or Facebook feeds to accessing private emails or even turning on the cameras and microphones embedded in electronic devices.
It’s important for Westerners to realize that, even though they live in nations that protect their privacy and speech rights, the communications they share online can (and do) have international audiences. “As soon as I tweet something, put it on Facebook, or email it to someone—say, a friend in a closed country—all of a sudden it’s on a global scale,” Dr. Straw cautions. He encourages family and friends of missionaries to be aware of the risks they may be facing, to be careful when naming specific countries or using words like “missions” or “evangelism” in online communications, and to understand when missionaries’ communication to their home churches and supporters is vague or infrequent.
As technology changes, so too must missionaries’ strategies for digital security. In November 2017, Dr. Straw will attend a security summit in Florida, where a small group of technicians and security experts who work with missionaries will seek to answer some of the questions surrounding digital security. “What do we tell people? How do we do this?” The answers will keep changing, but as long as both missionaries and their supporters continue to perform risk assessments for each individual context, we can be wise as serpents and innocent as doves while helping build the Kingdom in every corner of the globe.
In addition to serving as faculty at Corban, Dr. Eric Straw is the founder of Mark 5 Ministries, a non-profit organization that serves missionaries by sending teams of Information Technology experts to provide tech support at missions conferences around the world.