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The Jewish Ethicist: Internet Privacy II: What Information Should Not Be Revealed?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Some information should never be disclosed, even if the person consents to such exposure.


Q. 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?

Last week we examined ways in which Jewish tradition views the question of informed consent regarding information disclosure. But Jewish tradition not only guides us within this conventional approach to the issue of privacy, but also helps us to look beyond it. A Torah perspective would convince us that we should consider not only privacy and consent, but also the ideal of modesty and discretion.

Here, "privacy" refers to what a person would prefer to keep hidden, and "modesty" to refer 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 us against a life lived in the public thoroughfare 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 even a person who readily reveals these details to others is guilty of indiscretion.

Modesty is a paramount value in Jewish tradition. In the Torah, Bilaam comments, "How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov!" Rashi explains that the tents of the Jewish people are goodly because they are carefully arranged so that no looks into his neighbor's dwelling (Numbers 24:5). And Jewish law asks us to avert our gaze if we see someone engaging in a private activity, even an innocent activity which is not being concealed. Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes, "Neighbors need to be as careful as possible not to look at each other's activities in their common courtyard." (1)

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 to a small circle of friends. In order to develop a healthy personality, we need a clear demarcation between ourselves and others; each of us needs to know that there are some things that belong only to ourselves, secrets between the individual and the Creator.

One way we express the idea of modesty is through modesty in dress; men and women alike are encouraged to avoid clothing which is revealing, provocative, or which flaunts the anatomy. The identical principle applies to our character; Jewish tradition discourages being too open with private information. For instance, our Sages stated that a person shouldn't flaunt his achievements; conversely, someone who has a shortcoming should be discreet about that too. (2)

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. Our Sages, recognizing these considerations, say that if someone is determined to commit an immoral act, he should at least do so in utter secrecy. Then the act won't contribute to public brazenness, and the individual will find it easier to correct his behavior, since his public image is unaffected. (3)

Of course there is a difference between statistical information about a person's purchases and browsing behavior on the one hand and gossip about his personal habits on the other. The sources mentioned do not militate against the collection of personal information about Internet usage, especially given the great commercial value of this information. But by impressing on us the human problems inherent in situations of surveillance, they introduce a new and valuable dimension to the discussion. Merchants and consumers alike should ask themselves: Is this disclosure really necessary?


Last week's column discussed data sharing from the point of view of consent, focusing on what human beings want. But a Torah perspective reminds us that we must also concern ourselves with who human beings are. The character of the individual and of society as a whole requires the shelter of modesty for its development, and an environment of constant surveillance and information gathering has the potential to undermine this shelter. While we need to acknowledge the commercial value of Internet information gathering, we should also keep in mind the humanistic and spiritual dimensions of this issue.

(1) Shulchan Arukh HaRav Nizkei Mamon (2) Shabbat 23b, 53b (3) Kiddushin 40a and commentaries.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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