Coronavirus Surveillance vs. Privacy

"As the challenge of containing the coronavirus outbreak continues, governments around the world are looking to technology and smartphone apps to help trace the spread of the pandemic, in an effort to reduce the number of people who fall ill with COVID-19.

But while the efforts may be a key tool for governments because they could potentially slow coronavirus outbreaks, there are also concerns that gathering information about people's geo-location and other personal data to aid management of the pandemic risks infringing on our individual privacy more than ever before.

There are a number of technologies in development that may help track the virus. For example Apple and Google recently revealed a joint initiative to develop contact-tracing technology for government health agencies. Using Bluetooth, contact-tracing applications are designed to identify potential COVID-19 hotspots – and alert people if they've been in close contact with someone known to be displaying coronavirus symptoms.

he idea is that if people know they might have the virus, they'll take the appropriate action and isolate before potentially spreading it to others. The UK government has also confirmed that the National Health Service is working with technology firms to develop a voluntary contract-tracing app to help control the spread of coronavirus." - ZDNet


“All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus, including technological means, digital means, and other means that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.” - Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu, March 14, 2020


In general, Judaism emphasizes modesty and privacy. It's something that others have noticed, and praised. These values affect everything from the clothes we wear to the way we build houses:

(ב) וַיִּשָּׂ֨א בִלְעָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שֹׁכֵ֖ן לִשְׁבָטָ֑יו וַתְּהִ֥י עָלָ֖יו ר֥וּחַ אֱלֹקִֽים׃ (ג) וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃ (ד) נְאֻ֕ם שֹׁמֵ֖עַ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃ (ה) מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

(2) As Bilam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. ... (5) How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

מתני׳ לא יפתח אדם לחצר השותפין פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון היה קטן לא יעשנו גדול אחד לא יעשנו שנים אבל פותח הוא לרה"ר פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון היה קטן עושה אותו גדול ואחד עושה אותו שנים:

MISHNA: A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a courtyard belonging to partners, so as to ensure that the residents will enjoy a measure of privacy...

But one may open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward the public domain.

גמ׳ מנהני מילי א"ר יוחנן דאמר קרא (במדבר כד, ב) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה:

GEMARA: The Gemara asks: From where are these matters, i.e., that one may not open an entrance opposite another entrance, or a window opposite another window, derived?

Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Bilam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2).

The Gemara explains: What was it that Bilam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

לישנא אחרינא אמרי לה סברוה מאי מחיצה פלוגתא דכתיב (במדבר לא, מג) ותהי מחצת העדה וכיון דרצו בונין את הכותל בעל כורחן אלמא היזק ראיה שמיה היזק

Since they wished to divide the jointly owned courtyard, they build a proper wall in the center even against the will of one of the partners. Apparently, it may be concluded that damage caused by sight is called damage (hezek re'iyah, i.e. is legally actionable.)


Me'iri on Bava Batra 2a

As long as the damage from sight is remedied, the type of wall required follows local custom, even if that is a very thin wall. And we are not concerned about damage from hearing at all, meaning even if sound passes around or through the wall, because people are generally careful about what they say.

- There seems to be a difference between seeing and hearing. Do you agree with the Meiri's reasoning?

- In your opinion, is digital surveillance more like seeing or hearing?

- Are people generally careful about internet privacy? Do we read the cookie agreements, or simply consent? Do we know who has our data and how it's used / could be used? Do we think about every word we type knowing that someday it could all be public?


Shulchan Aruch Harav, Laws of Monetary Damage 11

It is prohibited to covertly observe the activity that another person does in their house or on their property, because they may not want others to know what they're doing. Therefore, poor people who divide a courtyard but can't afford a wall to prevent visual trespass should accept charity in order to build a minimal wall. If that's not an option, they should be careful to the best of their ability not to look at what the other is doing in the courtyard.

It's unnecessary to say that it's prohibited to peer into someone's courtyard without their knowledge, and even more obviously into their house. This applies even if they know they are being observed and don't protest, because they may just be embarrassed to say anything. Even when one's neighbor gives permission to make a window overlooking their courtyard, the permission is presumably intended only for the light. It is still prohibited to stand at the window and observe the neighbor's courtyard.

- According to this source, is it possible to give up your right to privacy? How would this apply to cookies or tracking apps on a phone?


Teshuvos Maharam MiRottenberg

A ban was issued by Rabbeinu Gershom not to look at a letter of one’s friend that was sent to another friend, without his knowledge.


Responsa of the Rashba, Volume 1 Siman 557

Rabbeinu Gershom did not make his decrees so that people might violate Torah or Rabbinic law because of them. Just the opposite, they were instituted only to insure compliance with our Torah and to insure that Jewish people act in a correct and modest manner. Therefore, if a court objectively determines that in a certain situation they can only insure compliance with our law by "violating the privacy" of an individual by reading their mail, there is no doubt that Rabbeinu Gershom would agree that it would be a mitzva to do so.

- What are the requirements to override privacy? Do you agree?

- It will be argued that public safety trumps the need for privacy. The US government took this approach to its demand of Apple that the company provide backdoor access to a terrorists' phone. Apple refused, saying it was "convinced that a new unlocked version of iOS would be very, very dangerous. It could be misused, leaked, or stolen, and once in the wild, it could never be retrieved. It could potentially undermine the security of hundreds of millions of Apple users." - Wired

- Similarly, in Israel, many are arguing that the surveillance of private citizens by the police will be impossible to reverse, and isn't worth the potential for fighting Covid-19. What do you think?

- Would you be willing to install an app that tracks you for purposes of Covid-19 protection? Would you try to uninstall such and app if it was surreptitiously placed on your phone as part of an update?