Internet Privacy in Judaism

What customer information can we collect and sell?

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Jewish tradition has a definite viewpoint on the consent issue. Con­sider the following passage from the Talmud:

"Where can we learn that anytime someone says something to his fellow it is subject to 'Don't say' until the person says, 'Go ahead and say'? [From the biblical verses where] it is written, "the LORD spoke to him [Moses] from the tent of meeting to say."

This passage points out that in the Torah, God explicitly tells Moses when His words are to be transmitted to the people. When God does not do so, Moses understands that the prophecy is intended for him alone. From this we learn that in general it is proper to refrain from repeating to others what we have been told unless the speaker explicitly consents.

This source seems to support opt-in over opt-out; information should generally be considered private unless there is explicit consent to disclose.

The issue of informed consent is also prominent in Jewish sources. Regarding someone who waives his rights to something without a full understanding of its extent or value, the Talmud states: "A mistaken waiver is no waiver at all." We can extrapolate to the situation of In­ternet privacy, where the consumer seldom fully appreciates the value of the information he is allowing the collector to use--a value that can easily reach hundreds of dollars.

One major danger to informed consent is the phenomenon of "data mining," sophisticated accumulation and analysis of seemingly innocent data. This practice can be likened to examining someone's rubbish. If someone sees me throw out a soda can, they have learned little about my lifestyle. But if someone were to carefully scrutinize every scrap of garbage that left my home, they would know practically everything about my private affairs. If I give someone permission to rummage through my garbage can for something useful, I do not have in mind that he may prepare a detailed catalogue of every item I discard. Likewise, a person who gives consent to reveal some particular bit of information may no have in mind that this datum will be pooled with vast amounts of other private information.

Thus consent is unlikely to be truly informed and complete unless the subject has adequate knowledge of two facts:

• The approximate value of the information he is giving up.

• The scope of the use he is permitting, including the potential for pooling this information with other data.

We see that the Jewish ethical tradition is quite stringent about the protection of private information and sets a very high standard of consent for valid agreements. While accepted custom does have a certain weight, these principles definitely favor an Internet privacy standard based on opt-in revelation, and require the information collector to provide adequate information about the value of the information being gathered and the full extent of the permitted use.

Privacy vs. Modesty

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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.