Internet Privacy in Judaism

What customer information can we collect and sell?

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Up to now we have examined the issue of Internet privacy from the standpoint of informed consent. But Jewish tradition does more than guide us within this conventional approach to the issue of privacy; helps us to look beyond it. A Torah perspective calls upon us to consider not only formal requirements of privacy and consent, but also social ideals of modesty and discretion.

Here, "privacy" refers to what a person would prefer to keep hidden, and "modesty" to what normatively ought to remain hidden. Jewish tradition affirms that a certain part of our being can flourish only in protected seclusion, and warns against a life lived in the public eye even if a person might be persuaded to consent to such exposure. Forcing someone to reveal intimate details of his or her private life is an inva­sion of privacy; but a person who readily reveals these details to others is guilty of indiscretion.

Modesty is a paramount value in Jewish tradition. In the Torah, Balaam [the non-Israelite prophet] comments, "How goodly are your tents, 0 Jacob." Rashi explains that the tents of the Jewish people are goodly because they are carefully arranged so that no one can see into his neighbor's dwelling. And Jewish law asks us to avert our gaze if we see someone engaging in a private activity, even an innocent activity that is not being concealed. Eighteenth-century authority Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyady writes, "Neighbors need to be as careful as possible not to look at one other's activities in their common courtyard."

Modesty is one of the most important foundations of a Torah personality. Modesty means there are some things that we should keep to ourselves or within a small circle of friends. In order to develop a healthy personality, we need a clear demarcation between ourselves and others; we need to know that there are some things that belong only to ourselves, secrets between the individual and the Creator.

One way of expressing the idea of modesty is through modesty in dress; men and women alike are encouraged to avoid clothing that is revealing, provocative, or flaunts the anatomy. The identical principle applies to one's character; Jewish tradition discourages being too open with private information. Our sages state, for instance, that a person should not flaunt his achievements; conversely, someone who has a shortcoming should be discreet about that, too.

A related consideration is that scrutiny damages our sense of dig­nity and restraint. Research studies on prisoners and others who lack privacy confirm this effect. In some cultures penitents are encouraged to "open up" and confess their sins in front of a group, but our tradition discourages this. Thus the Talmudic sage Rava Kahana, citing the verse "Happy is the one whose transgressions are borne and whose sins are covered," says that it is impudent to enumerate one's sins out loud. (An exception is made for sins against another person, which we need to reveal in order to obtain forgiveness.)

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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.