The Need For Privacy on the Go – Parashat Balaak

The Need For Privacy

The need for privacy is hardwired into every human being, though how one expresses this need is very individualistic.

I know people who when eating in a restaurant, unconsciously put a hand over their mouth. It’s obvious that they’ll never ever walk down the street munching on a pizza. They feel too exposed.

need for privacySome people speak softly in public and you can hardly hear them even when they speaking directly to you, because they refuse to have strangers overhear the conversation. That goes even when the topic is about the news headlines and not only about some horrific scandal in the family. These people are often the type who you can trust with your deepest and darkest secrets. Concerning their own skeletons in the closet, you’ll never hear about them no matter how close you are. Privacy is king.

On the other hand you know the type who shares everything with everyone; whether they are having a tête-à-tête with a friend in person or whether they are carrying on this intimate discussion in a booming voice over their smart-phone while sitting in a crowded bus. Sharing their entire life over Facebook is obvious.

Some people like to live in remote areas closed off by 20 foot stone walls and heavy drapes on every window. Others do just about everything on their front lawn opposite the street or in the living room with all drapes and windows wide open. There isn’t anything that they won’t put on display (I mean nearly anything of course…). Each to their own.

Balaam and Privacy

The Torah puts great value into personal privacy. In this week’s Parasha – Balak, the wicked prophet Balaam is amazed by the extent that the Jewish People protect and respect the privacy of their neighbors.

“When Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling at peace by tribes, God’s spirit was on him”. (Bamidbar 24:2)

The biblical commentator Rashi explains the words “by tribes” as meaning that the doorways of different families didn’t face each other so that the inhabitants of one tent would not look into their neighbor’s tent. Even to the unholy Balaam, this simple act of respecting the privacy of other families, made the Jews worthy of Divine blessing.

The Shulchan Aruch, Responsa literature and commentaries are replete with discussions and laws on the topic of “Hezek Re’iya” (visual damage) caused by visually invading the privacy of neighbors. The Rabbis analyze what exactly is considered invasion of privacy and how to create physical barriers between properties to avoid being on the wrong side of Jewish law.

Rabbenu Gershom and Privacy

Furthermore, Rabbenu Gershom Me’or HaGolah made a religious ban on reading another person’s private mail. Over a thousand years later, Rabbenu Gershom’s decrees are still binding on all of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Need For Privacy

Nevertheless and despite so many religious and legal laws, as technology advances it become more and more difficult to protect one’s privacy. All your data; your school records, your medical records, your bank accounts and even where and what you ate last night is all recorded somewhere in a database, visible to those privileged by law to get access to it (or to hackers who take the privilege without asking).

NSA and Privacy

After the WikiLeaks scandal,  we discovered vast amounts of information about covert governmental activities. The real crunch came when Edward Snowden leaked to the public how much the National Security Agency carries out mass surveillance on private individuals and corporations in the US and abroad; much of it under the general category of the Patriot Law.

Check out 16 disturbing things Snowden has taught us (so far)  to get some perspective on the topic.

Smartphones and Privacy

If the idea of the NSA keeping tracks on you isn’t disturbing because you don’t feel important enough to be considered a threat to national security, then be aware that your mobile phone carrier also keeps tabs on you. Not only who you call, the text messages you send and receive, but also where you are at any moment (as long as you are carrying your phone – and most of us do). I suggest watching this short video from TED Talks on how much your phone company tracks you every day.

OK, so it’s a bit difficult to protect yourself from the NSA or even the phone company, unless you’re willing to go off the grid and get rid of every electronic device you’ve got. But there is a small way to at least protect yourself in public places, buses and planes, when people blatantly look over your shoulder to watch and read what you are doing on your device. Whether you are texting or writing a business report or just watching a cute video of your kids, it can be quite unnerving to have someone sharing in the experience…

Privacy Screens

Here’s what the 3M company invented a few years ago to protect your viewing privacy. It won’t protect you from the NSA, but at least it gives you a semblance of privacy on the go.

Protecting Privacy is an Obligation – Not a Right

Like every Mitsvah in the Torah, the responsibility to respect the privacy of others is yours. There aren’t 613 “rights” in the Torah but rather 613 “obligations”. In theory, you don’t necessarily have a right to privacy, but rather an obligation to respect the privacy of others. When the day comes that each one of us will be committed to the needs of others, then privacy issues will fall away. Until that time, we’ll need to do our best to fight for our privacy on our own.