Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Privacy, Parshat Kedoshim and the Lost Iphone

The media has been abuzz about the lost new prototype of the next generation iPhone. At Apple, secrecy represents a large part of their marketing strategy, building a mystique and demand for their products that garners literally millions of dollars worth of attention. If you're not familiar with this story, I'll summarize briefly.
An Apple engineer, (now named on the internet) working on the new phone, went out drinking with his new phone
After drinking beer, he left the phone at the bar (note to self: top secret gadgets and alcoholic consumption don't mix well)
Someone else found the phone, and in a drunken stupor, gave it to the person sitting in the next booth, who he thought was a friend of the owner. (He thought wrong).
That person played with the phone, and even identified its owner through the Facebook page on the phone. No one came back to claim the phone, so he took it home.
He claim to have called Apple trying to reach the owner.
Realizing that this wasn't just any phone (it looked a little bit different), he opened the phone. The website (I'm specifically not linking to the site. If you click on the link, they'd make a profit, making me a willing conspirator to their profit from illicitly obtained information. If you're really interested, find it yourself.) continues,

He reached for a phone and called a lot of Apple numbers and tried to find someone who was at least willing to transfer his call to the right person, but no luck. No one took him seriously and all he got for his troubles was a ticket number. He thought that eventually the ticket would move up high enough and that he would receive a call back, but his phone never rang. What should he be expected to do then? Walk into an Apple store and give the shiny, new device to a 20-year-old who might just end up selling it on eBay?

When he failed to find the owner, he did what any normal person would do with a phone that they had found: he sold it for $5,000 cash to a tech website.
What does Judaism have to say about this event? A great deal, and all of it's sad. Really sad.
There's well-known mitzvah called השבת אבידה - the commandment to return lost items. The mitzvah is pretty straight forward: if you find someone's property, you can't use it or benefit from it. Just give it back. Like the drunk guy tried to do. You can't open it, examine it, sell it, or manipulate it in any way. If you can't find the owner, just keep it. Maybe one day you will. The only real exception to these rule is when the item itself will rot or deteriorate. Then you can sell the item (like a cow, or a squash) and keep the money to return to the original owner.
So if you find a phone, you can turn it on to find its owner. But you certainly can't open it and you definitely can't sell it.
But there's something more nefarious that went on here as well. The value of the phone stemmed from the proprietary information that it contained. I personally could care less that the new iPhone will have a camera, but many people apparently really do care. The existence of the phone and its form are (er, were) industrial secrets. And no one, not a journalist nor private citizen has the right to reveal information acquired against the will of its owner. We learn this from a Midrash in this week's parshah.
גדול כסוי הסוד, שכל המגלה סוד חברו, כאילו שופך דמים, שנאמר (ויקרא יט, טז): 'לא תלך רכיל וגו' [לא תעמוד על דם רעך]'. גדול המכסה סוד חברו, שהוא מקיים מחשבות חברו.
So great is the keeping of secrets, that one who reveals secrets is compared to one who spills blood, as it is written, "You shall not be a talebearer among your people, and do not stand idly by the blood of your friend." Great is the person who keeps his friend's secret, for he fulfills the wishes of his friend.
Perhaps your thinking: isn't that a little bit of stretch? It's like spilling blood?
Actually, is that really so difficult to imagine, even in this case. Imagine the engineer who lost the phone. OK, it was dumb to bring the phone to a bar. But who among us can say that we haven't done a stupid thing or two? But now that his name is out, imagine that Apple fires him. Can you see him finding another software engineering job anytime soon? What would your state of mind be in this type of situation? Does anyone know how he'll react?
We live in a world where the drive for the scoop - the latest information at any cost, has robbed us of any semblance of privacy or secrecy.
Which should give us all pause to wonder: what's on my phone?