Privacy: From Balaam to Facebook ~ 30 June 2018 ~ 17 Tammuz 5778
July 3 2018

“It’s private! 

One day we give her a bath. The next day, she closes the door and says, “It’s private! ” We want to assert our privacy and we also give it away.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Louis Menand asks, “Is there something primal about the need for privacy, for secrecy, for hiding places and personal space? These are things we seem to want. But do we have a right to them?”

Bil’am, a noted Canaanite seer and sorcerer, accepted the commission of the Moabite leader, Balak, to curse the Israelites. Bil’am took the job, but recognized that he could articulate only what God directed him to say. His intended curses became blessings.

Although the most well-known vignette is of Bil’am’s donkey who is able to see what the great seer did not, another of Bil’am’s words found great product placement in our prayerbooks. He looks at the people of Israel, camped around the wilderness sanctuary, and says:  מַה טּבוּאהָלֶיךָיַעֲקב מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

”How beautiful are your tents Yaakov, your dwelling places Yisrael" (Numbers 24:5). To this day, those words are recited when we enter a place of prayer.

The Torah tells us that Bil’am stood on a hill overlooking the encampment of the people of Israel. The rabbis imagine Bil’am viewing the Israelite tents and noticing that they were arranged so that no one opening faced that of another.  Every family was assured privacy.

Over the past few months, I have been receiving e-mails that announce, “We’ve updated our privacy policy!” They promise better control over how my personal data will be used. These have crept into my in-box brought by a new European Union law: the General Data Protection Regulation.

Do you read the new policies? I sign up for a data service, but don’t give much thought who collects my clicks. Yet someone is doing something with my information.

My phone tells how many minutes it will take for me to drive home. How does it know where I live? Amazon and Indigo suggest books I might like. Other sites may know what personal care products we use. After an initial surprise, we grow to expect this customized attention. The algorithm anticipates what we want.

In the past year, many of us came to realize that we don’t really know who is seeing our data or how they’re using it. The consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information of more than fifty million Facebook users and sold it to clients, including the Trump campaign.

A consumer-technology writer for the New York Times published a column titled, “I Downloaded the Information That Facebook Has on Me. Yikes.” Even he was surprised by how much information Facebook had about him and the list of companies to which it had been sold.

The Talmud legislates that the doors of houses that circle a courtyard must be constructed to assure that each home is shielded from outside viewing. This makes privacy not only a courtesy but a mitzvah, a religious requirement.

What about your lives are you willing to share with others? As with the child in the bath, we are inconsistent about the exposure we accept. We don’t like to be fingerprinted by government, but we turn our thumbprints over to Apple. Unlike in Israel, Canadians don’t have to use an identity card when purchasing gas, but Americans memorise Social Security numbers and often share the last four digits when asked.

Cell-phones contain some of our most private and personal information. In Canada, we have a “reasonable expectation” of the privacy of our cellphones. Although in 2014, the Canadian Supreme Court decided that a police officer may search a cell-phone incidental to a lawful arrest, in 2016 the Court indicated that a person is not required to reveal the passcode.

That same year, our Court said that service providers may not always have to provide personal information of cell phone users. And just last year the Supreme Court ruled that text messages sent to others, which are contained on the recipient’s phone or stored by our service provider, are protected from unwanted searches.

Last week, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Timothy Carpenter, convicted of a series of armed robberies. He was prosecuted, in part, on the basis of records from his cell-phone company that showed the location of towers his calls were routed through, which placed him near the scenes of the crimes. The US Court ruled that the government cannot force cellphone service providers to hand over their users’ locations ranging over significant periods of time without first getting a warrant. 

What is more important, profit, privacy or security? Do you remember the San Bernardino massacre in 2015, when a married couple killed 14 people, wounded 22 and died in a shoot-out with police? The police retrieved an iPhone. The National Security Agency was unable to unlock it for the FBI, so the FBI asked Apple to do it.  Apple refused; its business would be damaged if customers knew that third parties could hack into their phones. The government sued.

Eventually, the FBI found a company (rumoured to be an Israeli one) which had a tool to unlock the phone. Some news media companies tried to compell the government to reveal the source of the unlocking tool, but a judge ruled that this information was classified. “How a public agency got something a private corporation was trying to keep a secret is a secret.”

Have you ever noticed the signs that identify a red light camera? They are present at many traffic intersections. Twenty years ago, citizens could assume that they were not being photographed on city streets. Today, in Chicago, there are 30,000 closed-circuit surveillance cameras. Does that make you feel uncomfortable or more secure?

Think of Israel. Walking in to Ben Gurion Airport, we are constantly surveilled by facial recognition technology—and we are pleased that our safety is protected. While a skilled police officer might match up a face on the street with a mug shot, facial-recognition technology does it automatically. Indeed, police used this type of software to identify the suspect in the newspaper shooting in Delaware this week.

And, of course, Alexa is listening. This spring, an Oregon couple’s personal conversation about hardwood floors was recorded by Alexa, Amazon’s “smart speaker” for the home. Alexa then mistakenly sent the audio file to an employee of the husband. Amazon said the event was “an extremely rare occurrence”—but what does it indicate about the future?

Privacy has value. Menard points out that "sometimes the value is realized by hoarding it and sometimes it’s realized by cashing it out.” At one time, gays and lesbians thought they were better off keeping their sexuality secret. Once they decided that making their sexual identities public was beneficial, privacy became a sign of hypocrisy. Do you remember when people began to make themselves famous by revealing their lives on television? They sold their privacy, confirming how valuable it is.

A recent conference at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem explored derekh eretz, a term for acting decently toward others. It is the manner in which a mensch acts. We are challenged to place a moral compass on our words and our deeds. Respecting the privacy of others means to act with derekh eretz.

We are conflicted about technological intrusions into our personal lives. We want and need courts and legislatures to protect our privacy, even as we also want government to know more to protect our safety. We want on-line companies to make our transactions more smooth, but don’t want our personal data shared. 

But as individuals we can and should adopt standards of derekh eretz to respect each other's privacy. The condemnation of lashon hara— whether idle gossip or on-line bullying—requires that we pay more attention to our own behaviour and less attention to the deeds and actions of others

Three thousand years ago, Bil’am admired and extolled the modesty and derekh eretz of the Israelites, indicated by the positioning of their tents. How wonderful it would be if we would demonstrate such care in our technologically advanced society and—more importantly—in our personal behaviour toward each another.