Torah for Today: What the Torah says about… internet privacy

Torah for Today: What the Torah says about… internet privacy

By Rabbi Jeremy LawrenceTorah For Today

While Robbie Williams chose to tweet and broadcast graphic footage of the birth of his son, most of us prefer our more intimate personal moments to remain private.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are taking action against journalists for stalking Prince George and are suing a French magazine for publishing salacious snaps of Kate in 2012.

Several celebrities have recently suffered hackers accessing and publishing their private photos. However, it’s not just the rich and famous that are affected. Social media abuse has seen children as victims of cyber-bullying, office snoops surveilling employees through their Facebook pages and petabytes of confidential correspondence forwarded to third parties.

Halacha certainly enjoins us to conduct ourselves with modesty; also to avoid the sins of roving eyes and wagging tongues. The Talmud ascribes merit to the Israelite encampment because the openings of one tent did not look into another.

Of course, under the doctrine of Pikuach Nefesh, national interest or state security could justify authorised prying in the face of reasonable cause. Indeed any risk to life or reasonable apprehension that children might be at risk from online or offline predators would justify a violation of privacy.

An edict ascribed to Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz by the Shulchan Aruch prevented intercepting or reading someone else’s correspondence. Casually reading someone else’s emails or forwarding them without permission was forbidden by Halacha more than 1,000 years ago – on pain of excommunication.

Does this extend to Facebook posts and tweets? Even though we may share them with closed lists of ‘friends’, it’s done in an environment where sharing and re-tweeting is the norm.

Though eavesdropping is considered reprehensible, people are admonished to be wary of the risks of conversing in public places.

Not everyone who overhears will be scrupulous about the laws of Lashon Hara, which prohibit both disparaging tale-bearing and also passing on innocent yet private information about another, if there is no compelling reason to do so. Hurt feelings matter. Rabbi Akiva taught that to love our neighbour as ourselves is a core tenet of the Torah. We should not do things that others find detestable. That extends to augmenting the pain and encouraging the intrusion by Googling hurtful pictures for our own amusement.

We can have no respect for ourselves if we show none to others. When it comes to internet privacy, sometimes sharing isn’t caring.

• Jeremy Lawrence is Rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue

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