What Would the Talmudic Rabbis Think of the NSA?
Thanks to two leaks of classified information, we have been hearing about data collection practices at the NSA. The evolution of new technologies requires us as a nation to thoughtfully consider how to strike the proper balance between protecting national security and protecting individual privacy. The revelations of the last few weeks, arguably, fall somewhere in the grey area of appropriate behavior.
As my colleague, Benny Witkovsky, explained earlier this week, the story of Balaam revolves around his attempt to curse the Israelites but ends with him blessing them. His blessing is the words of Mah Tovu, how beautiful are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places oh Israel. The beauty was not in the fabrics or grandeur of the tents but in their arrangement. The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yochanan tells us that the tents were arranged so that the entrances did not face each other, thus preserving the privacy of the occupants. This idea of offset tents was extrapolated into the concept of hezek ria, the harm that can be inflicted by seeing.
These teachings were codified into a set of laws that prohibited anyone, including creditors, from physically entering the tent or house of someone else, even to retrieve something that belongs to him/her. Rabbi Akiva went so far as to suggest that one should knock before entering one’s own home, lest another family member require privacy (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 112a).
These concepts, however, are complicated to apply in the NSA case.
Here is a brief recap of the relevant events. First, it was revealed from a leaked court document that Verizon Wireless has been turning over records of phone calls to the NSA on a daily basis. It subsequently became clear that Verizon was not the only cell service provider involved. The data collected does not include recordings or transcripts of any phone calls, only “meta-data” (more on that in a bit). What has raised significant concern about this revelation is that the data being transferred to the NSA is not limited to that collected on foreign nationals but includes Americans as well.
Second, a contractor for the NSA leaked a PowerPoint used to train new analysts on a system called PRISM, which allows the NSA to access information stored on the servers of technology companies including Google, Apple and Facebook, in the course of intelligence gathering. The NSA system essentially allows the NSA to access information about foreign nationals stored on the servers of US companies. Of course, this is all subject to FISA Court approval, in theory.
What is key about all this information is that the data that are collected are, to use the computer/technical terminology, meta-data or data that describe data. Say, for example, you call your sister from your cell phone. The NSA will not listen to your conversation, but it will know everything else about the call: the number you dialed, how long the call lasted, where you were when you placed the call (although this is not always collected). It would be roughly equivalent to knowing the information on the outside of an envelope, but not the contents of the letter within it. However, when information about the call is put in the context of everything else you do, an analyst can start to deduce its content. Let’s say that you placed the call right after you got off the phone with an oncologist’s office and a neurologist’s office, and the called was followed by a series of calls to other relatives and other frequently contacted numbers. One can deduce from the call pattern that you received some key news about your health. Based on the length of each call one can deduce if it was good or bad. Say the statistics show short calls indicate good news and long calls indicate bad news. Using nothing but this simple information about the calls you placed, one can piece together the content of a phone call. Imagine what could be done to further corroborate your conclusions with access to similar metadata about your online activities.
While the NSA is not technically allowed to spy on US citizens, the nature of internet communications means that some information on US citizens will likely be swept up in the collection process. The NSA is permitted to retain and use any information “inadvertently” collected on a US citizen. Most troubling about this revelation is that the FISA court, which is supposed to protect Americans from invasive surveillance, has provided broad guidance that permits these retention practices.
Since the NSA is not necessarily “peering into the tent” of any American citizen, and is only effectively tabulating his/her comings and goings from the tent, it is not clear how we should apply the Talmudic teachings of privacy to the information collected. However, Judaism has rules on tale-bearing, or information trading (Leviticus 25:17). The Hebrew word for tale-bearer, rakhil, is related to the word for trader or merchant. In essence we are told not to traffic in information or say anything about someone (positive or negative, factual or rumored) if they are not present. Thus, should we each be responsible for determining what information about ourselves is spread and to whom?
The debate over these techniques is only just getting started, and it is a safe assumption that there will be more information and context that either leaks or will be released as the debate evolves. The complexities of the issues and technologies involved make this a tough issue to process, but it gets to the heart of the national security-civil liberties debate that materialized particularly after 9-11. Setting aside the NSA program, this data is out there and we are generating more and more of it with each click and keystroke. The biggest fight over civil liberties in the next decade will most likely revolve around big-data and what right to privacy we are entitled to when public information can be used to distill increasingly personal information with increasing speed and accuracy.
Image originally posted by PCmag, as seen in leaked NSA PowerPoint Slides.