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A Torah Take on Data Privacy

 

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, breathtaking changes in technology have posed stark challenges to privacy and security. Private companies collect massive amounts of consumer data—information that often contains intimate details about our personal lives, from the people that we email to the apps that we use to the websites that we visit. What is the Torah's take on data privacy? Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University addresses this question in the following article he penned for Forbes:

Recently, I opened my phone and was surprised to discover a message from my 20-year-old son with a picture attached of him as a 75-year-old man. The app behind this latest social media craze, FaceApp, realistically depicts what you will look like in fifty years’ time. A day or two after receiving the picture, the entire incident took on a darker cast. Given that FaceApp was developed by Wireless Lab, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, lawmakers began to raise concerns that allowing the app access to personal data might represent a “national security and privacy risk to millions of U.S. citizens.”

And it was certainly little comfort when security experts responded that FaceApp probably represented no more severe  a risk than most of the ways we surrender our data to major tech companies. In an era when social media and tech giants are expert in understanding and learning their users’ likes and dislikes, knowing where they are at all times and using our sensitive information to drive revenue and increase profits, these are the everyday realities in front of us.

What do we do in this era of constant connection and perpetual tracking, where one’s thoughts, words and deeds can be instantaneously captured, broadcast around the world and preserved forever; where the lines between private and public are becoming increasingly blurred?

While we face a particularly modern iteration of the dilemma, ancient Jewish tradition provides us some direction through the interpretation of the story of the gentile prophet, Balaam, who was hired to curse the Israelite people, and ends up blessing them instead. Perhaps the most famous line that Balaam speaks is his praise of the Israelites, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel!”

Why did Balaam extol the Israelites’ tents, of all things? The rabbis of antiquity answered that Balaam admired a specific feature of the manner in which the Israelites had arranged their tents; namely, the tent openings did not face one another, thus preventing peering eyes from seeing into a neighbor’s home.

In an essay outlining “A Sanctified Perspective on Dignity, Privacy, and Community,” leading contemporary Jewish thinker, Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig of Yeshiva University, argues that this rabbinic teaching highlights the emphasis that Jewish thought places upon the primacy of privacy. In Jewish law, privacy is not simply a matter of personal preference. It is rather a formal legal category, such that peering into another’s private space is considered an act of damage.  This reflects the Jewish tradition’s understanding that it is only away from the public eye - given space to make mistakes and take risks - where we can discover our unique personalities.

This defining feature of Jewish thought is being challenged by the ethos of our day. Our children are being reared in a culture in which everything they do is captured and preserved forever. Whereas George Orwell in “1984” imagined that people would need to be coerced into this sort of behavior, our children are engaging in it voluntarily, posting their thoughts and experiences, not to mention disclosing their personal information without any regard for the potentially permanent consequences that can result.

In this new world, the first clause of Balaam’s blessing - “How fair are your tents, O Jacob!” - is of greater importance than ever before.  But at the same time, consider the verse’s second clause, in which Balaam praises the Israelites’ encampments. What is the difference between “tents” in the first half of the verse, and “encampments” in the second? The classical Jewish commentators from late antiquity down to the nineteenth century taught that whereas “tents” referred to the Israelites’ private dwellings, “encampments” referred to public spaces dedicated to collective, communal endeavors. Balaam offered praise for these places as well, for there are enormous advantages to cultivating an integrated, active public square.

We live in a time when there exists both the need and increasingly expansive means to cultivate virtuous public places, with boundless opportunity to affect positive change. It is only by engaging in public life head-on that we can achieve success that resonates far beyond our own families and social circles.

Taken as a whole, then, the rabbinic interpretation of Balaam’s ancient words highlights the importance of living in two domains, of cultivating both a virtuous private and public life. This is a crucial message as we think about educating the next generation.

We need spaces and moments for ourselves and our families; times when, and places into which the camera should not enter. Privacy is a value to be protected and treasured. And once these private moments have rooted us, we can then capitalize on the advances of today by participating head-on in the public square.

Perhaps this is the reason why this verse has resonated so strongly throughout Jewish tradition. The imperative to create both sanctified, private “tents,” and virtuous, public “encampments,” captures the essential posture of Judaism’s approach to the productive human experience. And it is this set of values that we must bring to the rest of the world, so that when our children reach the age when they do not just look 75 because of an app, but are 75, they inhabit a culture and society that both prizes the value of private strivings, and celebrates the promise of collaborative effort.