Q. I'm trying to track down a man who owes me money. In order to locate him, an investigator told his wife a phony story to gain her confidence. Is such a pretext ethical?
A. Your case is very similar to the following story told in the Talmud:
Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi were going in the way. . . When they got to a certain place they asked for an innkeeper, and they told them of one. [Rabbi Meir suspected that he was a wicked man] . . . Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi deposited their purses with him, Rabbi Meir didn't deposit his purse with him. . . The next day they said to him, give us our purses. He said to them, you never gave me!. . . They drew him and brought him into a wine seller, and saw that he had lentils in his mustache. They went and gave this as a sign to his wife, then took their purses and left.
What happened was that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi told the innkeeper's wife, "Your husband told us to get our purses from you. And so that you would know that he really sent us, he gave us a sign: he had lentils for breakfast." Of course this story was only a pretext, meant to get the wife's confidence. (1)
The practice of pretexting obtained wide publicity following the Hewlett Packard scandal. HP chairperson Patricia Dunn ordered private investigators to find out which board member was leaking details of board meetings, and the investigators in turned used pretexting to obtain phone records of board members and journalists. An investigator simply called up the phone company and claimed that he was actually such-and-such a board member or journalist. The technique was successful; phone records of many individuals were obtained, and the leaking board member was identified. Ultimately Dunn was indicted for her role in the scheme, though criminal charges were later dropped.
The HP example was a clear example of unethical pretexting. The main reason is that unlike the sages in the Talmudic story, who had an absolute right to their money, HP had no right to the private phone records of board members and certainly not those of journalists. In order for pretexting to be justified it is necessary that you have a right to the information and the other side is not justified in concealing it.
Another ethical breach in the HP scandal was that the investigators claimed to be particular real individuals. This is rather different than simply making up a story. Even if you do have a right to the information obtained by impersonating someone real, that person will likely object. There is no justification for compromising the interest of innocent third parties. In my opinion this includes impersonating authority, for example a police officer. This practice has the effect of eroding the faith citizens place in legitimate public servants and authorities.
However, the justified ethical uproar surrounding the HP case doesn't mean that pretexting can never be justified. In fact, in the wake of the scandal the California legislature considered a bill prohibiting "obtaining or attempting to obtain, or causing or attempting to cause the disclosure of, personal information about a customer or employee contained in the records of a business through specified methods, such as by making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements or representations, with specified exceptions." Yet the bill did not pass because some legislators were concerned that the bill would prohibit legitimate uses of the technique, such as investigators trying to track down lost children and insurance fraud.
My own family has an interesting pretexting story. Over a century ago my great-grandfather ran away from home, and as a young teenager worked his way across America from New York to California, where he was about to board a ship to Australia. At the last minute his father sent him a wire stating that his mother was dangerously ill, and that he should come home right away. In fact, the story was only a pretext to get the child back home, and when he returned he was happy to be back and decided to stay.
Pretexting should only ever be used as a last resort. Any kind of untruth is ethically repugnant, and should be avoided even when used for legitimate purposes. We learn this from the story of the Talmudic sage Rav and his son Chiya. Rav had a strained relationship with his wife, and she would often do the opposite of what he requested. Their son Chiya eventually learned to relay the father's requests to the wife in an altered way that helped restore harmony. When the father eventually learned of this, he praised the son's wisdom but instructed him not to continue with this practice. Since this alteration was habitual, it carried a danger of accustoming the son to bending the truth. (2)
The Torah is a Torah of truth, and any kind of misleading or deception is to be avoided. But when making up a story is the only way to obtain important objects or information you have an absolute right to, and when the story doesn't compromise the interests of any third parties, it can be justified as a last resort.
SOURCES: (1) Yoma 83b (2) Yevamot 63a
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.