Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Jewish View on the Celebrity Nude Photo Hacking Scandal

The recent naked celebrity photo hacking scandal underscores the primary concern that we all should understandably have regarding the Internet. Privacy breaches due to intentional hacking in my opinion keep the Web from being the greatest invention of our modern times. You see, just about every day of my life I feel a sense of gratitude that I am living during the Digital Age. The vast amount of information at our fingertips thanks to the Internet is amazing. However, the ability for hackers to steal our data -- whether personal financial information or sensitive photographs that we'd like to keep private -- casts a negative light on the entire endeavor.

The idea that someone evil has hacked into the personal iCloud accounts of a few select celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Avril Lavigne, Hayden Panettiere, Hillary Duff, Jenny McCarthy, Kate Bosworth, Kim Kardashian, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Kate Olsen and Selena Gomez tells us that none of our password protected data is really safe from theft. These celebrities took photos with their cellphones -- like most of us do -- and believed that those photos would remain secure and out of the public eye. The truth, however, is that as soon as a better encryption method is created there will be a hacker who knows how to break that encryption to steal the data.

Celebrities Naked Photos Hacked from iCloud

Every day there are people who have their personal data stolen. The reason this recent hacking scandal has been so widely reported around the world is because it has the two ingredients for mass appeal -- celebrities and nudity. While the public's interest is certainly piqued thanks to the release of these unauthorized, intimate photos of celebrities (some of which include famous athlete Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers who is dating model Kate Upton), there are some very clear cut ethical issues that are raised by the scandal.

Clearly, the hacker who managed to get into the iCloud accounts of these celebs and then leak the images has violated the law in addition to violating a universal code of ethics. He is a thief -- plain and simple. By extension, legal and ethical questions arise about anyone who profits from these hacked photos. That might be a sticky situation of course because some of the celebrities themselves will likely benefit from the release of these hacked photos.

The more difficult ethical questions arise when discussing the culpability of those who view these leaked photos. Could simply viewing them be considered deriving benefit and thus a form of theft? To answer this very modern question through a Jewish perspective, it's best to consult a Jewish legal scholar from the 11th century. Rabbeinu Gershom was both a legal expert and an ethical sage who ruled on matters involving privacy of information and the public trust.

Long before discussions of email privacy, Facebook data mining or hacked iCloud accounts, Rabbeinu Gershom was concerned about individuals being able to maintain private data. At the beginning of the eleventh century, Rabbeinu Gershom wrote four special legal decrees (takkanot) in Germany, each of them differing with the established Jewish laws in Babylonia at the time. Rabbeinu Gershom's most famous legal ordinance concerned the outlaw of polygamy. However, he also wrote a decree that is relevant to the ethical questions surrounding the viewing of the naked photos that these celebrities owned and thought would be kept private. Rabbeinu Gershom enacted that it is a major transgression (immoral act) to open and read someone another person's mail. This legal ruling ensured the privacy and safety of correspondence.

It was not uncommon for individuals to add a seal to their pieces of mail that read "B'Chadrag," which was an abbreviation for "B'Cherem d'Rabbeinu Gershom." This seal meant that any reader of the document without permission (a "hacker" in modern terminology) was in violation of the excommunication-edict of Rabbeinu Gershom. So serious was a violation of invading someone else's privacy by reading their personal correspondence (i.e., their private data), that that person would be put into cherem (excommunication or religious censure and banned from the Jewish community).

On his blog, Michael Pitkowski, quotes from Nahum Rakover's book on the question of the right to privacy in Jewish law. Rakover wrote that, "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. Interferences with the right also has its criminal law character, to be countered by penal sanctions. 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. Simply looking at these stolen images that were obtained through illegal means (hacking) is an ethical violation as the viewer is benefiting from something that was obtained through illegal and immoral means. This also raises that question about photos of celebrities (as well as non-celebrities) that were taken without the knowledge or consent of the subject (e.g., photos by the paparazzi). Should paparazzi photographers be able to profit from photographs of celebrities that were taken without permission. Can a magazine ethically use those photos it purchases from a paparazzi for its own benefit?

There are many challenging ethical questions that the nude celebrity photo hacking scandal raises. The fact that it's such a media storm because of the subjects in the photos (and the type of photos) will certainly force us to deal with these questions. The Internet remains a powerful tool for all of us in the Digital Age, but the ethical violations surrounding data hacking and the online theft of private property (like personal photos in the cloud) are real. 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 an electronic photo in a password protected account in the cloud, it is unethical to steal.

1 comment:

Dan Watson said...

But if it's an atheist Chinese hacker, who isn't bound by American or Jewish law, what then? Is there an international statute that protects privacy, what about American spy agencies hacking the German Chancellor?