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Responsible Design — Lessons from Biblical Privacy Ethics

In this feature, Prof. Cahn and Mr. Glass summarize a longer article they co-authored that was published in 2017 in the DePaul Journal of Religion and Business Ethics, “Privacy Ethics in Biblical Literature.”  We are delighted to include this overview as well as a short joint “interview” in which Prof Cahn and Mr. Glass provide some context for their work in deriving contemporary lessons from some of the world’s oldest wisdom literature.

The right to privacy is an extension of the right to be treated with respect and extends the definition of the self outward including one’s body, dignity, information, and property. An ethics view of the modern right to privacy is Bloustein’s description of privacy as the right (as opposed to wrong) way to treat people with dignity, a safeguard of individual integrity and freedom. Privacy is spiritual in character, not simply a property interest.

The 1890 definition of privacy penned by Warren and Brandeis as “the right to be let alone” has been identified as the beginning of the modern legal concept. To address privacy issues as they emerge, including consideration of privacy rights in corporate and government decisions regarding private information, and informing the writing of appropriate laws, it is necessary to rely on long-standing ethics to provide a framework within which to treat technology-driven problems. Warren and Brandeis traced their basis for a legal right to privacy as far back as the fourteenth century.

Concern for an ethics of privacy appears even in biblical literature. Proverbs 11:13 reads: “A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.” Proverbs holds in high regard those who respect the information privacy of their fellows. Proverbs 25:9 advises: “Argue your case with your neighbor directly, and do not disclose another’s secret”, explicitly advocating respect for another’s privacy. Not only is it understood in this verse that one is entitled to privacy, but the act of breaching another’s privacy is openly censured.

Concern for safeguarding privacy is applied to building design in the Talmud. The opening Mishnah of tractate Baba Bathra states that adjacent properties should have walls separating them. Later in the tractate the Mishnah adds that windows and doors of adjacent properties should be located so as to guard against residents visually invading the privacy of their neighbors. Citing Numbers as a source, the Talmud understands a biblical ethic of privacy springing directly from God.

Mishnah: In a courtyard which he shares with others a man should not open a door facing another person’s door nor a window facing another person’s window. If it is small he should not enlarge it, and he should not turn one into two. On the side of the street, however, he may make a door facing another person’s door and a window facing another person’s window, and if it is small he may enlarge it or he may make two out of one.

Gemara: Whence are these rules derived? –R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes. This indicates that he saw the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!

The Talmud thus links the value of privacy to considerations of modesty. Why, the Rabbis ask, did Balaam bless Israel saying “how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5)? The reason is that the tents were arranged in a fashion that was modest. The Rabbis engaged in these discussions recognized that privacy is fragile and that opportunities for intentional or even incidental breaches of privacy should be anticipated and avoided. A moral lesson here is that the individual deserves to be protected from encroachment on personal domains. There is a reciprocal obligation for every individual and organization to respect other individuals’ privacy. Even before protective laws are written, each individual’s privacy should be respected by everyone from the passerby on a public avenue, to the corporate executive, to the government official.

Privacy looms large as an ethical concern in the Hebrew Bible and successive rabbinic works because a breach of privacy is irreversible. A single invasion of privacy results in permanent removal of information from a personal to a larger, more public, domain. Once something is public, the individual loses control over it. This is especially true in our time of information on the internet. Data can be either useful or anonymous but not both. Even “anonymized” data can be uncovered. In fact, the term “anonymized” is a misnomer; such data is merely confidential. Seemingly disparate bits of data can be combined to reveal a clear picture, a mosaic in a manner of speaking.

A modern corollary to the privacy-sensitive building design of the Talmud would be privacy-sensitive product design and business information systems. Ethical designs should anticipate normal use as well as misuse, akin to the engineering concept of failsafe design.

There is a lesson here for designers of machine learning algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI) tools that collect information and reuse it. AI is a catchy term, but disingenuous. While it is artificial, it is not intelligent, other than in the machine context of adaptive autonomous application of perceived data to optimize a programmed goal. AI is simply Algorithmic Imitation of decision processes. Responsibility remains with people: software designers, marketers, business managers.

Encroachments on privacy may very likely be enabled by tools before laws can be crafted to regulate privacy protection. With every new device that makes the world a more networked place, opportunities for loss of privacy are also created. It is in this ambiguous environment that business decision makers and design engineers must make choices. Thoughtful choices in the absence of laws require reliance on long-standing ethics. Where the law is unable to keep up with the change of the times, ethical codes passed from one generation to the next can provide guiding insight. Human-machine systems go back as far as the use of tools by people. Biblical literature can offer an ethical standard to adhere to in modern times as the law struggles to keep up with privacy-invasive technologies and social structures.

Some Context for this Feature

We wanted to learn more from Prof Cahn and Mr. Glass about how an article like their Depaul Journal paper which applies ancient faith texts to ultra-contemporary technology came about.  Here are answers provided by Prof Cahn as a synthesis of their thoughts.

Q:  What is the genesis (if you will!) of your original article in the DePaul Journal of Religion and Business Ethics?  How did you come together to write it and did you find a community of scholars, tech professionals, and faith leaders thinking regularly about this topic?

A: Several years ago, I met one of the editors of the Journal of Religion and Business Ethics at an International Vincentian Business Ethics Conference hosted by St. John’s University in New York. The conference is jointly organized by St. John’s University, DePaul University, and Niagara University and its location rotates. The conference attendees are a community of scholars who are interested in business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Most are professors in business schools. Religion is of natural interest to this group of business ethics scholars because many ethical values derive from religious teachings. My training is in engineering so I have an interest in tech. I teach business analytics as well as business ethics.

Q: Why research modern “privacy” issues in Biblical literature?

A:  What is a corporation’s responsibility with regard to information privacy? This is one of the unresolved issues causing dilemmas today. The problem is here now. Because the issues are currently being debated, there are no unambiguous laws (at least not yet) to constrain behavior. It is in this ambiguous environment that business decision makers and design engineers must make choices. Someone deciding what to do in such an uncertain situation may look to older ethical values for guidance. Many ethical values, seen apart from the technologies that they may be applied to, are long lasting. Religious literature is one repository of ethical values.

Q3:  What encourages and concerns you most about AI-powered technology as it is currently emerging?

A: It is encouraging that adaptive technology design builds in continuous improvement. Nonetheless, ‘artificially intelligent’ machines are not really intelligent. However adaptive, they are programmed. Algorithmic choice mechanisms are not ‘ethical’.  Lack of transparency about human involvement is concerning. Both individuals and organizations may use this opacity to evade responsibility for (un)ethical consequences.

Thanks very much!  Ed.


Edward J. Bloustein, “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity: An Answer to Dean Prosser,” New York University Law Review 39 (1964): 971, 1002.

Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4 no. 5 (Dec. 15, 1890): 218.

English translations of verses from the Hebrew Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version.

The Talmud comprises the combination of the Mishnah and accompanying elaboration of the Gemara, together covering some 500 years of rabbinic teaching stemming from the commands of the Hebrew Bible.

Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. (Soncino Press, 1969), Baba Bathra 2a. See also Baba Bathra 2b, 59a.

Baba Bathra 60a.


Paul Ohm, “Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization,” UCLA Law Review 57 (2010): 1701.

E. Susanna Cahn and Benjamin Glass

<b>Dr. Susanna Cahn</b> is Professor of Management and Management Science in the Lubin School of Business at Pace University, and serves as Director of the Business Honors Program for the Pleasantville, New York campus. Her research covers business ethics and decision models, ranging from the business applications of quantitative models drawn from decision theory, queuing, and forecasting, to the development of codes of business ethics and pedagogy of business ethics education.
<b>Benjamin Glass</b> is a JD/MBA student at New York University.

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