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by Rabbi Yisroel Newman

Over the holiday period, two of the world’s largest corporations were under a virtual attack.

Sony and Microsoft had their online services disabled as a hacking group caused problems for PlayStation and Xbox users. What does the Torah say about these situations where people or corporations’ information is compromised?

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat 363:6) rules that a person has the right to forbid others from taking benefit from his property. There is, however, a difference of opinion in regards to a case where the owner would not incur any kind of loss by having someone using his land or belongings. In the case of hacking, however, the hacker is gaining access to information that is not made for public consumption.

There are two issues here: Firstly, there is a Torah prohibition of “geneivat da’at”, literally stealing someone’s knowledge. When the hacker obtains the data and private intellectual property, which belongs to others, he is violating this prohibition. (Owing to the fact that the items stolen are intellectual or virtual, there is no penalty or punishment for the transgression.)

Secondly, there is a decree from the 11th century rabbi, referred to as Rabbeinu Gershom, who ordinated several rules, including enacting the transgression of reading someone else’s mail or correspondence. This was to ensure the privacy and safety of said information. A hacker is in violation of the excommunication edict of Rabbeinu Gershom and, if found guilty, in many communities would have been put into religious censure from their community.

The right to privacy, we may well conclude, is in Jewish law a vested right, which is protected by injunction, restoration of the status quo and the award of damages, from the civil law aspect. Generally, in this area, more perhaps than in other areas, two conflicting interests are posted – the right of the individual and the rights of society. The law must strike a fair and just balance between the two.

Judaism sees this scandal as a clear ethical violation that has moral and legal ramifications for many people indirectly. We must understand that the same universal code of ethics that keeps us from stealing tangible property from others keeps us from stealing virtual property as well. Whether it’s a printed photograph in a locked safe deposit box at the bank or information on a online service, it is unethical to steal.

• Yisroel Newman is a rabbi in New York. He can be contacted at rabbi@askrabbiteddy.com and is on Twitter at @askrabbiteddy