Internet Privacy in Judaism

What customer information can we collect and sell?

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life (Ktav Publishing), a compilation of the author's weekly syndicated ethics columns.

Collecting and selling information about customers' characteristics and buying habits has become a sensitive and widespread ethical question. Many vendors claim that customers don't mind if they store and use such information, since ultimately the customer benefits from the marketing this information enables.

Even if this is true, Jewish tradi­tion can sensitize us to two additional issues. First, perhaps customers would mind if they were adequately informed about the uses and value of the information they provide. Second, perhaps customers should mind. The very fact that people do not care what others know about them is itself an ethical problem, a symptom of the excessive openness of our society.

Informed Consent

QUESTION: Our firm collects private information about our customers. For instance, we have the measurements and style preferences of garment purchases. Can we sell this information to other vendors?

jewish internetANSWER: Giving personal information to other vendors does have some advantages for the customer. Such information enables the seller to concentrate his ad budget on consumers who are likely to be interested in his message, so the consumer is presented with more advertisements for products and services that interest him and--theoretically--fewer messages that he finds annoying and irrelevant.

At the same time, the collection of personal information raises immense privacy dilemmas. Most people would shudder at the very though that neighbors, creditors, competitors, or even distant busybodies might have easy access to all of their buying and browsing habits.

The topic of disclosing private information has two aspects: consent and modesty. Consent means that information should be disclosed only with the full agreement of the subject; modesty dictates that some information should not be made public at all.

It is widely accepted that data should not be disclosed without the agreement of the subject, but there are many views regarding how much agreement is needed. Some are satisfied with an "opt-out" policy, in which all information is considered public unless the user explicitly expresses a desire to keep it private; others demand an "opt-in" policy in which service providers may collect information only when explicitly permitted by the user.

Many advocates are concerned that even an opt-in policy may lack adequate consent. Perhaps the consumer does not have enough information about the policy to give truly informed consent, or perhaps there is a degree of coercion because withholding consent has negative consequences, such as limited access to service.

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Rabbi Asher Meir

Asher Meir received his Ph.D. in economics from MIT, and received his rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate after 12 years of study at Israeli Rabbinic Institutions.