Berel’s cousin came on a visit from abroad. He proudly presented
Berel with the latest in American technology – a listening device, the
size of a matchbox. “Have fun!” said the cousin. But Berel is not sure
whether it is halachically permissible to listen in to other people’s
phone conversations (in any case, he doesn’t think it is correct
behavior). If such action is generally forbidden, are there any exceptions
to the rule?
The Maharam of Rottenberg (Responsa, P.160 –
Prague edition) quotes Rabenu Gershon’s cherem (enactment): “One
may not read a letter sent by one person to another without his knowledge.
If he has thrown the letter away, it is permitted [to read it].” The
prohibition would seem to be directed at the actual reading of a private
communication, irrespective of the reader’s intentions. He may have no
intention to steal the letter or to make any use of its contents, whether
for his own benefit or to harm one of the parties, Heaven forbid. Reading
out of pure curiosity is also forbidden. Rabenu Gershon’s intention was
to ensure that private information remained private. It therefore follows
that there is no difference whether this written information is contained
in a letter, a fax or on a computer screen (or any other part of a
computer – including e-mail). Logically, if two people are conducting a conversation on a
telephone line, it can be assumed that they wish to keep the details of
their discussion private. In all these cases, an unauthorized outsider is
intruding into other people’s privacy. Once a person throws away a
private letter, it is assumed that he no longer objects to it being read
by others. If you do not want others to read a discarded letter, tear it
up before you throw it away!
The Ramban writes (Mishpat HaCherem) that one who
performs an act that is forbidden by means of a cherem is
considered as if he had transgressed a Torah prohibition. Therefore, if we
are in doubt whether the cherem applies in a particular case, we
must be stringent (see Noda Bi’Yehuda, Vol. 1, Section Even Hoezer,
No.45 and S’dei Chemed, Vol. 6, P.265). This is not the only cherem enacted
by Rabenu Gershon. The most famous one is that forbidding bigamy. The
Sefardim did not accept this cherem. However, the cherem
under discussion was universally accepted, without time limit.
We can therefore conclude that it is definitely
forbidden to use a listening device to listen in to the private
conversations of others, just as it would be prohibited to read a private
letter which one had sent to the other. This is forbidden even if the
listener is only motivated by curiosity. If he is trying to delve into
another person’s secrets in order to harm his reputation or his finances
(as in the case of industrial espionage), it makes the crime more severe.
there no exceptions to the rule? If the object of the intrusion into an
individual’s privacy is to prevent violation of the halochoh,
whether it be a Torah or a rabbinic law, it is permitted. For example, if
a parent is concerned about the company his child is keeping, he may
listen in to his phone calls. If a teacher is worried about what his
students are getting up to, he may intercept notes passed between them. As
long as there is a reasonable suspicion that some activity that is
not in accordance with the Torah is happening, such action is permissible.
Rabbis and communal officials may also use these methods to make their
investigations, if necessary. There is no difference whether the
suspicions concern an individual or a group of people. What is important
is that there are reasonable grounds for suspicion.