The Clementi Suicide and Invasion of Privacy

Daniel Solove
Founder of TeachPrivacy

Clementi-Tyler

The media has been reporting on the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University.  From CNN:

On the evening of September 19, Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi is believed to have sent a message by Twitter about his roommate, Tyler Clementi.

“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, New Jersey, surreptitiously placed the camera in their dorm room and broadcast video of Clementi’s sexual encounter on the internet, the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said. Ravi tried to use the webcam again on two days later, on September 21.

“Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi is believed to have tweeted.

The next day, Clementi was dead

New Jersey authorities said he apparently committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. A law enforcement source told CNN that Clementi’s wallet and cell phone were found on the bridge.

Two students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, have been charged with criminal invasion of privacy charges.  The law in New Jersey provides:

2C:14-9.     Invasion of Privacy, Degree of Crime, Defenses, Privileges.

1. a. An actor commits a crime of the fourth degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would know that another may expose intimate parts or may engage in sexual penetration or sexual contact, he observes another person without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.

b. An actor commits a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he photographs, films, videotapes, records, or otherwise reproduces in any manner, the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.

c. An actor commits a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he discloses any photograph, film, videotape, recording or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, unless that person has consented to such disclosure. For purposes of this subsection, “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer. Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection b. of N.J.S.2C:43-3, a fine not to exceed $30,000 may be imposed for a violation of this subsection.

From the facts I’ve learned thus far, it remains unclear precisely what motivated Ravi and Wei’s actions.  What is clear is that this case illustrates that young people are not being taught how to use the Internet responsibly.  Far too often, privacy invasions aren’t viewed as a serious harm.  They are seen a joke, as something causing minor embarrassment.  This view is buttressed by courts that routinely are dismissive of privacy harms.  It continues to persist because few people ever instruct young people about how serious privacy invasions are.   Another attitude that remains common is that the Internet is a radically-free zone, and people can say or post whatever they want with impunity.

But privacy is a serious matter.  People are irreparably harmed by the disclosure of their personal data, their intimate moments, and their closely-held secrets.  Free speech isn’t free.  Freedom of speech is robust, but it is far from absolute.  Today, everyone has a profound set of powers at their fingertips — the ability to capture information easily and disseminate it around the world in instant.  These were powers only a privileged few used to have.  But with power must come responsibility.  Using the Internet isn’t an innocuous activity, but is a serious one, more akin to driving a car than to playing a video game.  Young people need to be taught this.  The consequences to themselves and others are quite grave.

I doubt Ravi and Wei realized that their actions would contribute to a young man’s suicide.  I doubt they had any idea that their actions were criminal.  They’ve learned these lessons now.   Sadly, it is far too late.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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