The Right to Privacy in Judaism

Judaism values privacy, but it's unclear how much.

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Reprinted with permission from Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Question: It is common practice today for one company to sell the vital statistics of its clients to another company. It is also accepted that organizations--including rabbinic and philanthropic organizations--sell or give their address lists to other organizations. Computer software known as "spyware" frequently enters home and business computers and collects personal information about users without their informed consent. This information is then used for future advertising and marketing purposes.  Finally, Caller ID allows a company receiving a call to see the caller's phone number on a screen. As a result, companies that receive orders via 800 numbers can sell their customers' phone and credit card numbers to other companies. What is the halakhic attitude towards these practices?

Responsum

At first glance, these questions seem trivial. What does it matter if someone distributes my vital statistics and as a result I receive junk mail and junk phone calls? Who does it harm? But on second thought, these practices symbolize a much more serious phenomenon--the inability of modern man to maintain privacy and confidentiality.

We live in an age of lack of privacy. There are many newspapers and "entertainment" programs devoted entirely to gossip and slander. Photographers and cameramen invade funerals and photograph the anguished cries of bereaved families. Our vital statistics and medical records are recorded on computers which can be invaded without too much effort. Through the Internet, one can break into the private computers of millions of individuals and companies.

Finally, eleven years ago we witnessed what was probably the greatest show trial in the history of mankind. A poll taken in February 1995 showed that 82% of the population of the United States planned to follow the O. J. Simpson trial, along with millions of people around the world.

Proponents of this massive invasion of privacy cited the "public's right to know." Yet there is no such "right" in Jewish law. On the contrary, as we shall see below, in Judaism every human being has the right to privacy and confidentiality unless he or she waives that right and allows someone to enter his home or reveal his secret.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the halakhah forbids disclosure of vital statistics or confidential information about anyone without the express permission of the person in question. This conclusion is based on four prohibitions leading from the more general to the specific case under discussion.

Visual Privacy--Hezek R'iyah

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.