What Does Judaism Have to Say About Privacy?

What Does Judaism Have to Say About Privacy?

Privacy is a concept that is very important in Judaism. In various parts of the Talmud, the Rabbis of Jewish tradition dealt with issues ranging from confidentiality, to surveillance, to the need of sharing information with the public versus the privacy needs of individuals. In the Book of Proverbs, we read that, “a base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence.” (Proverbs 11:13).  This is further elucidated in the Talmud, where the rabbis state one should never disclose the details of even a casual conversation without permission. (BT Tractate Yoma 4b) 

Today, our ability to capture data electronically and analyze it is unparalleled in human history. We give up some right to privacy almost every day – when we get on the internet and order merchandise, or go to a store and use a frequent shopper card, for example. While this offers us many benefits, from convenience to improved health care, the current situation always violates our privacy. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Customer loyalty programs have been with us for quite a while, the first one being credited to a store in New Hampshire in 1793. Over the years, the plans’ tracking methods have morphed from trading stamps to loyalty card programs to, most recently, phone apps that keep track of your purchase activity. 

In grocery stores or big box stores, your loyalty card or app will generally provide you with discounts on items. You’ll pay a higher price for these items if you don’t agree to participate in the program. The store receives information about the items you are buying and your buying habits in exchange for the discount. This allows the store to analyze the data and use it for any purpose that they see fit. 

Many consumers are unaware of the full extent to which their data is being used. One example, reported by the New York Times in 2012, concerned the Target stores using purchasing data to predict which customers were pregnant. This information would allow them to send special offers to this subset of customers. In the minds of the marketing department, this action would help them acquire long-term customers, not only during the customer’s pregnancy but throughout their child’s life. 

This type of analytics can seem like a benign idea. Who doesn’t want a little extra attention to their personal needs? But in reality, analytics help companies gather personal information about their customers. Target’s analytics department found that by comparing predictions to birth records (which are public), they could be surprisingly accurate in tracking pregnancy and other life changes that  affect customer buying habits.  They could then use these to encourage various segments of the population to spend money at Target. Did customers realize they were trading their privacy for discounts? If they did, they largely don’t seem to care, because loyalty programs continue to grow. 

But loyalty programs are just the tip of the iceberg. Looking at the internet, virtually everything you do is tracked by someone. Retail sites analyze what you have looked at and what to show you next. Even if it is your first trip to a given site, the website takes note of  your IP address and can determine your approximate location. The site begins to know something about you from this information. Based on what other people in your locale clicked on next, and the eventual outcomes of those clicks (purchase, exit, or another click), they can build a behavioral model and increase the probability that you, specifically, will purchase something.

On top of the current sales-and-analytics mountain sits Amazon. According to Statistica, Amazon has built an analytics behemoth that now accounts for over 47% of the e-Commerce retail market, now exceeding Wal-Mart in sales. With such massive amounts of data, Amazon can develop behavior models that take your personal information and lead you on a path that results in your clicking the “buy” button. 

These are just some examples of how we are giving up our privacy to companies who are trying to sell us things. Some retail examples are benign, while others are objectionable, creepy or even dangerous. Our use of social media to communicate with “friends” provides another roadway into our private lives. The availability of data and analytics provide ways for outsiders to enter our “private” lives. 

The fact might be that privacy today is only an illusion. The question is, knowing what is possible in our current world, what does Judaism have to say about it? 

The key passages that scholars dealing with privacy go to are in Numbers 24. We hear Balaam (or Bilam) say, when he looks upon the Israelites’ encampment, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings O Israel.”

What was so great and beautiful about what Balaam saw? The answer is found in the Talmud in Baba Batra, which deals with civil damages. It says that a person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance, or a window opposite another window, on a courtyard belonging to partners. A living complex should be constructed such that the doors and the windows of the individual residences do not have a line of sight to each other; following this rule will allow it to enjoy a measure of privacy, keeping what is going on within the home private.

But how do we know that that is the law? Rabbi Yohanan says that the law is derived from the passage in Numbers cited above. When Balaam saw that the Israelites were living tribe by tribe, the tents did not have their entrances or “windows” facing each other, thereby providing each family with a measure of privacy. Rabbi Yohanan said, “If this is the case, then people are worthy of having the divine presence rest among them.” Privacy is considered to be important to ensure the presence of the divine. 

In another part of Baba Batra, the Rabbis detail further the community elements that create privacy, such as a wall or barriers in a shared courtyard. They state that while the wall should protect visual privacy, it does not need to protect sound privacy, because people understand that sound carries and are generally careful about what they say. They can keep things they want private from being overheard.

It is further prohibited to stand at a window and observe a neighbor’s activities within their home, whether they know about it or not.  Where we are today, we are always knowingly or unknowingly opening up our windows for observation. More than a window, analytics and data science provide a telescope, enhancing what the observer is seeing. The window is open on the internet, and we know we are opening it, but it takes some skill and organization to get the “telescope” view afforded to corporations. While the raw data is important, the ability of analytics to combine and enhance it for the observer provides a powerful view into our private lives. 

Judaism asks us to act with a measure of modesty to protect our privacy and that of others. Peering into another’s life was an act of immodesty and a violation of the right that person had to their privacy. Even if the person said it was ok, Judaism finds that it probably not right. 

The Jewish position is to have a level of modesty, which is in clear tension with the level that many organizations will breach that privacy for their benefit. We are left to wrestle with what we should as Jews accept as reasonable privacy given the situation we find ourselves in today.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Andrew Paley is Rabbi at Temple Shalom in Dallas, TX).


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