While impeachment hearings have consumed the attention of the nation, the Senate this week held an inquiry into a possible new law on privacy. The inspiration for the bill is the California Consumer Privacy Act, which was passed last year and is set to go into effect January 1, 2020. While the California law will only cover companies doing business in that state (which of course includes many large tech firms), the Senate bill would bring uniformity to how our personal data is handled nationally.
The new federal bill may incorporate elements from the California act as well as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in 2018. In the digital world, information about us is portable anywhere on the globe, so the rules written in Brussels or Sacramento may affect me here in New Jersey.
Data privacy is a major issue in all of our lives as our phones, computers and credit cards record each and every action we take. Maybe you have felt the creepiness of a company targeting you based on your location or past behavior. One of the craziest stories is that of how Target found out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father.
As human beings, we have always been concerned about our privacy, but in the past it was a more personal issue. Rabbi David Golinkin writes about the Jewish sources on the privacy by looking to neighbor relations. He notes that there is a concept called “’hezek r’iyah’ or damage caused by looking”. One is not allowed to build a window in your house that will look into the window of someone else’s home.
The idea of hezek r’iyah implies that even if you don’t do anything with personal information obtained about someone else, there is a problem merely with seeing something private. No one wants to feel as if they are being watched without their consent. A company with access to my data may not sell it to others or use it to market to me, but just having it in the first place may be harmful.
The rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about privacy that they advised people to announce themselves when they walk into another person’s home. They even go so far as to instruct us to provide a warning when entering our own home. Perhaps the sages had teenagers who needed privacy from their parents too.
In ancient times our concern may have been nosy neighbors, not companies with algorithms that analyze our data, but the affect was the same. As human beings we want to feel comfortable in our private space, and as technology continues to advance, perhaps we can look to old wisdom to help find ways to keep us secure in the digital age.