Teen’s suicide shows dark side of surveillance

At Rutgers University, New York State, first-year student Tyler Clementi asked his room-mate, Dharun Ravi, if he could have the room for the evening for a romantic tryst.

Ravi went to his friend Molly Wei’s room, after first directing the camera on his computer towards Clementi’s bed.

It is alleged that in Wei’s room, the pair of them, both 18, watched Clementi have sex with a man.

Ravi streamed the film live on to the internet, alerting his Twitter followers: “I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Two days later, the same thing happened and, according to the police, Ravi invited anyone with iChat to spy on Clementi again. The following day, Clementi expressed his anger on an online chat forum – it seemed that some students were disgusted that Ravi had to share a room with a gay man.

Clementi then drove an hour to the George Washington Bridge and jumped off. Ravi and Wei have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy, which carries a jail term of up to five years.

The horrors of this story lie in how easy it is to film and broadcast someone in a private situation. Not only that but Ravi’s account of what he did – “I turned on my webcam. I saw him making out” – reflects no sense of transgression, just a dull, affectless statement: this is the normal stuff students do.

In recent years, it has become extremely easy to film anything you want to and many electronic devices now come with a camera as a standard accessory.

It is just as easy to distribute it. Just imagine the lengths a Dharun Ravi would have had to go to, before webcams and Twitter, to film his room-mate having sex, advertise the film then distribute it.

But surveillance and the gross invasion of privacy don’t just arise from technical possibilities. What makes it seem ordinary is the utter normalisation of surveillance by public authorities and others.

The ordinary citizen is filmed without their permission hundreds of times a day by local authorities and private businesses, for any number of reasons and for none. You can imagine a Dharun Ravi wondering why that surveillance should stop at the bedroom door.

The proponents of the surveillance society tell us if you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear. Well, some people at Rutgers clearly thought “making out with a dude” was doing something wrong.

But cases of this sort only come to public attention when they end in tragedy. Ones which merely end in misery and humiliation must count in the thousands.

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