Last month marked the beginning of a new campaign for Internet privacy with the unveiling of the “Reset the Net” campaign. Academics, tech companies, and civil rights organizations from around the globe, including Google, Mozilla, WordPress, Tumblr, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, are urging individuals to act now to reclaim their technology privacy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden released a statement to correspond with the beginning of the campaign.Modern privacy concerns, of course, predate Snowden by more than a century and we find evidence of similar concerns even millennia earlier in the Old Testament.
Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis are credited with creating “The Right to Privacy” in their 1890 Harvard Law Review essay. Interestingly, their privacy concerns at the time centered on celebrity gossip journalism and the new media of their day, photography. Warren and Brandeis’ article, perhaps the most influential law review article of both the 20th and 21st centuries, famously defined privacy as “the right to be le[f]t alone.”
Privacy advocates have a surprising and quite vibrant text to support their cause in the 21st century: The Bible. One well-known narrative in the Bible, the Tower of Babel, tells the story of how God fragmented human languages and caused people to divide into tribes, and eventually into nations, spread around the world. God delivered this confusion of languages to humankind because they had built a large tower on the plain in Babel, or Babylon. The Genesis text teaches that the building offended God, but we do not know why God was offended.
The Christian tradition emphasizes the pride of Babel and the confusion of language that God brought to humanity. Bible commentators like Matthew Henry have suggested another possible explanation: that the leader at Babel “aimed at universal monarchy,” and “under pretense of uniting for their common safety,” he tried “to keep them in one body, that, having them all under his eye, he might not fail to have them under his power.” Henry’s work echoes that of the Jewish-Greek historian, Josephus, who wrote that the leader of Babel wanted to use the tower to bring the people “into a constant dependence on his power.”
A tyrant’s consuming power and illegitimate control of the people, his surveillance and eavesdropping, perhaps, lead to God’s judgment. This is one possible reading of the tower narrative.
According to my colleague and friend Rabbi Tsuriel Rashi of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication, privacy advocates find support for their principles from the Bible’s Pentateuch. The Tower of Babel narrative is central. Dr. Rashi, writing in his contribution to my new book, “Interfaith Dialogue in Practice: Christian, Muslim, Jew,” states explicitly that, “The purpose of the tower was to monitor and censor speech in the new city around it. This was what God opposed and why he destroyed the tower and the city.”
Rashi turns to a unique 20th century commentary from Naftali Zvi Berlin in which Berlin understands the Tower of Babel as the first Orwellian “Big Brother.” The Genesis 11 narrative of the Tower stipulates that the people were of “one language” and of “one speech.” Rashi explains that “the words ‘of one speech’ insulted the Lord, as they signified homogeneity of thought and the lack of any opposition. Opposition became a normative prerequisite in Judaism for the proper functioning of society.” God clearly values diversity of political thought over uniformity according to this reading of the narrative.
Rabbi Rashi writes “the aspiration to build a city, with a tower is … what we understand today as an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ concept, whereby all are to be carefully observed from the tower constantly and are not allowed to leave their own settlement, lest they come into contact with others having different ideas.” The Rabbis are drawing our attention to a thread that is already present in the Christian commentary tradition.
As a young student, I dismissed concerns about government intrusions on individual privacy with the smug statement, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” I find the vast majority of the current millennial generation with whom I interact on the college campus ascribe to that same philosophy. Nonetheless, I now concur with Rashi that God is not pleased when surveillance is used to enforce “one speech.” When government, or any other entity for that matter, tracks what citizens think, say, plan, and do, we have an ethical violation on its face. Dr. Rashi declares, “It is not as megalomaniacal building engineers that they [the people of Babel] are punished by God but rather as totalitarian-minded social engineers who sought artificial and forced social consensus.”
So it is that privacy advocates can and should track their contemporary arguments to the ancient Book of Genesis. Maybe God’s ideal for civic life has merit after all.