Helping Digital Ministries Avoid Privacy Disasters

caution tape on ground

The design decisions you make can have life-altering repercussions. We like to think that our actions are always good and will bring someone closer to God. Yet our digital worlds are very connected. Not everyone is ready to broadcast they are a Christian. How you design your campaigns and features impact your users. This article explores are few digital privacy pitfalls, and how to avoid them.

Remember, digital footprints and notifications are everywhere. Our home computers, tablets, and phones are all ways we can impact our users. Often this is good. But this is not always the case. Remember there are places in the world where being a Christian can be a death sentence. Yes, digital mistakes can be that drastic. Even churches in suburban America need to worry about privacy. Domestic violence and restraining orders are problems many churches deal with. So keep your visitors’ privacy in mind, especially in the following situations.

Website and Social Media Content

We should always be careful of what we post on websites and social media. Law enforcement agencies use online photos and videos to find suspects. The same can be for those that are not friendly to the Church or your congregation. Granted they may not have access to facial recognition software. But their safety and privacy are your concern. Alert members if you plan to take photos or video at an event. Put posters at all entrances warning visitors. Consider handing out flyers as well. Ask that they come to you in private if they wish to be removed from any posts. Lastly, consider the angles and focus of your photos. If possible, avoid faces. You want to convey participation, not provide identification.

Social Media Tagging

As a rule of thumb, do not automatically tag church staff or congregation members. Let them tag themselves. It should be their choice if they want to be identified that way. Notify your congregation when you post photos online. Then remind them that if they want to tag anyone, it should only be themselves. Even close friends can cross that line. Ask that members private message someone they might tag. That person can then choose to tag themselves or share it with their circle of friends. You will find that many of us are still learning online etiquette.

Social Media Groups

Mistakes in social media privacy settings have caused massive problems for several companies. We trust these platforms with personal information. Be wary of how you advertise groups and their membership. Also, realize that groups often have privacy settings separate from individual users. Then consider how you communicate to those groups. Often mass messages show up differently than private or direct ones. Be mindful of how they can identify who is in your groups. Lastly, understand if someone wishes to be removed from a group. Their reason may be different from what you might assume.

Tracking and Advertising

Be clear about how you will use any tracking information on your website. You might notice some of your browsing habits follow you. Browse some products on Amazon. Later, scroll through your news feed on Facebook. It is likely that you will see ads for the same products you were just looking at. Tools like the Facebook Pixel integrate with many online venues. These tools could associate your audience with your church in ways they may not want. I highly suggest not integrating these tools with your online shop. Your visitor’s privacy is more important than selling merchandise.

Electronic Communications

Getting contact information does not always mean you have permission to send them messages. Email accounts are sometimes shared by people in the same household. A spouse or child may not be ready to disclose they are a Christian. Unsolicited text messages can have similar implications. The first consideration is if you asked for permission. It is very easy for data to get merged over the course of several projects. An emergency contact could now be on a marketing list. Be sure to warn people of any communications ahead of time.

Action Item

The bottom line, your church needs to have an “opt-in” mentality for every digital exchange. Mike Monteiro had a very good quote in the below-referenced video. “We need to fear the consequences of our work, more than we fear the consequences of speaking up.” Regardless of your role in your church, you need to care about this. Someone may visit your church once. But because of a mistake, end up forever associated with the digital world. Those mistakes can ruin a relationship, or end a life. We wield dangerous tools. Use them for the most good possible.

This article was inspired by Mike Monteiro’s talk “How Designers Destroyed the World” (Caution: NSFW Language)

Photo courtesy of Penny Mathews

Author: Stephen Morrissey

I have been making websites since 1996, and using social media since 2006. My current profession is designing user experiences for corporate software, websites, and mobile applications. I started sharing my knowledge with the world in 2011, about a year after a revival in my faith.