'Damage By Seeing' -- Jewish Insights for the Privacy Debate

A human rights activists wears pink glasses reading 'stop spying' during a protest against the alleged violation of privacy b
A human rights activists wears pink glasses reading 'stop spying' during a protest against the alleged violation of privacy by the US National Security Agency at McPherson square in downtown Washington DC, July 04, 2013. The recent leaking of classified intelligence documents has led to revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data. AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

What quality makes a society great? Is it justice? Freedom? Opportunity?

One famous Jewish teaching claims none of the above. Rather, it claims privacy makes a society great. The Bible teaches a story about a prophet named Bilaam who was hired to curse the children of Israel, but upon seeing the society, was only able to say blessings, like ""How good are your tents Jacob... like gardens by the river, like fragrant herbs planted by God." What prompted this blessing when he was hired to do the opposite? What goodness did he see? The Talmud explains: "He saw that their tent openings did not face each other." The Israelite society was structured in a way that people could not see into each other's inner lives.

Today, windows, not of glass but of data, are open into our lives in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago. As the debate swirls, what should be our response? How do we, as individuals and as a society make the difficult choices balancing privacy and security, sharing and oversharing, convenience and confidentiality?

Jewish teachings have been wrestling with many of these questions for thousands of years and thousands of pages. Here are five ideas drawn from the sources that might offer insight to today's conversation.

1. Seeing is damaging

The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra contains a fascinating debate: does someone merely seeing me conducting my activities at home or on my property cause me damage? The concept of the damage caused by being seen is called hezek reiah. After much discussion, the overall rabbinic consensus is that hezek reiah is a real form of damage. So, according to this Jewish opinion, the NSA gathering data about you, or for that matter Facebook, Google or Amazon, might be harmful to you even if nothing sinister is done with it.

2. Protecting the semi-private

The Talmudic debate about privacy and damage makes an important assumption: within a private house, of course violating someone's privacy is damaging! The Talmudic debate centers around what happens in a chatzer, a courtyard. A chatzer was a shared place between houses: not individually owned, but not public. Protecting privacy applies there as well. In today's world, what are the in between, non-private but non-public spaces that need protection? Is it a relationship status on Facebook? Purchases made on Amazon? These aren't private acts, yet perhaps they, like the courtyard, deserve a form of protection as well.

3. Individual Responsibility to Make Wise Choices

Though the conversation around privacy centers on our responsibility to not violate the privacy of another, it does not mean there is no onus on an individual to protect his or her own privacy. Maimonides (Laws of Neighbors, 7:1) writes that if someone built a new house in front of another person's window, the builder cannot demand that the window be closed up because it might violate the privacy of the new home. The builder made a choice and must live with the consequences. So too today: if you open a window into your life, don't blame others for looking into it.

4. Privacy is not an individual right -- it is a communal obligation

There is little discussion in Jewish law of a specific right to privacy, though there are damages ascribed to having one's privacy violated. Rather, much of the conversation focuses on the communal obligation to protect the privacy of all. When Bilaam offers his praise, he does not say "Each person was hidden from their neighbor." He says: "their tent openings did not face each other." This means that as a group society acted to protect privacy. Most of the discussions of privacy in the Talmud are concerned with how to not violate the privacy of your neighbor. Rabbinic sources stress that before entering a home, even one's own home, one must take steps like knocking, calling out, or clearing one's throat, to avoid intruding on someone's privacy. They also focus on the responsibilities that neighbors have to ensure each others privacy when building new walls, windows, and doors in shared courtyards. If protecting privacy is a communal concern, and potential violations must be made known, it is incumbent upon government and companies to be more transparent about the data they collect and how it is used.

5. Human Life Over All

As is the case throughout Jewish law, life is the most sacred value. If there were a clear case where violations of individual privacy would directly result in the saving of lives, Jewish teachings would support the violation. It is probably true that government snooping has saved lives and prevented attacks. It is also probably true that government snooping has disrupted the lives of innocents, targeted people who have done no wrong, and been wasteful and ineffective. When the government goes after our privacy, there must be an open conversation on the who, what, where, when and why of surveillance. In the case of corporate interests, it is hard to imagine a case where Amazon knowing and selling information about what kinds of health products you buy or Facebook owning the rights to your college pictures could ever save a life.

Our world is making unprecedented leaps in the way personal data is created, shared, and viewed. Tapping into time-tested spiritual traditions can help guide us wisely through the complicated decisions we need to make. Jewish teachings stress the communal responsibility to create privacy for all, the concept that seeing in itself is damaging, that we must protect not only the private but the semi-private, the individual responsibility to make wise choices, and putting human life above all.

The Prophet Bilaam who praised the privacy of ancient Israelite society in the book of Numbers, makes a reappearance later in the Bible. The prophet Hosea writes:"My people, remember what Balak king of Moav plotted against you and how Bilam the son of Be'or responded to him... With what shall I approach God, do homage to God on high? ...He has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God." May we strive to live up to Bilaam's praise, leading lives and building societies of justice, of goodness, and of privacy.