Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Private Lives

By the time you read this, the trial of Dharun Ravi may already be over and a verdict delivered.  He is a freshman at Rutgers University who has been accused of “invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and hindering apprehension” associated with the suicide death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi.  While the terms “invasion of privacy” and “hindering apprehension” are somewhat self-explanatory, “bias intimidation” needs some clarification. Briefly, it occurs when an act is committed “with a purpose to intimidate the victim because of  their race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity” (the full legal definition is at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/criminal/charges/bias3.pdf) This is a particularly important charge because the criminal penalties for bias discrimination are much more severe than the other two charges (up to ten years in prison and/or possible deportation),

So, what happened that caused these accusations to be made against Ravi? That is a very long and complicated story that has been minutely described by Ian Parker in the Feb 6, 2012 New Yorker magazine, “The Story of a Suicide --- Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy”.

Here is a short version which leaves out many of the details: Ravi set up a webcam on his computer to secretly view a liaison between his roommate, Clementi, and an unidentified male, known only as “M.B” in the court records. Along with Ravi’s friend, Molly Wei they viewed (but did not record) part of the rendezvous.  After the encounter,  Ravi tweeted, “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.” As Ravi’s Twitter account was public, Clementi found and read that tweet and although initially reticent to start a “drama”, he eventually filled out the online form for a room change, reporting that his roommate had spied on him with a webcam. Afterwards, he went to the George Washington Bridge and jumped, committing suicide. He left his last message on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

Whether or not Ravi is guilty of all or any of the three charges will be determined by the judicial process. Even the apparently obvious  “invasion of privacy” indictment is being argued by the defense attorney who claims that Ravi used his webcam only for security purposes --- he was merely trying to protect his computer from possible theft. However, if the privacy violation is proved by the prosecution, this is certainly another case of technology making it easier to violate the privacy of an individual and, in this instance, one that has caused  dreadful consequences. 

A less sensational concern is Google’s recent change in its  privacy policy. Google claims that all it wants to do is replace with a single policy the multiple policies associated with its many applications --- ranging from  maps to music to email and even Youtube (see: http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html for a complete list) .  Google will now be able to store all of its customer data in a single database making it easier and more feasible for Google to target its ads to individuals who have subscribed to their services. Proponents point out that you have the choice to opt in to this policy and you gain all of the services Google provides for free. No one is forcing you to join and if you are comfortable trading some of your personal data for free use of these services, it’s a very good bargain.

Critics have an different viewpoint. They claim that Google is, first and foremost, a company that makes its money on advertisements that accompany their services. And, although, Google does not directly share your data with its advertisers, it uses them to select their ads. This raises the question of the security and integrity of your data. What if a hacker gets hold of it? What if a government agency requests access? Do your really want your search history to be this accessible?

My best guess is that this is an issue divided by age. If you are under 30, this new policy doesn’t bother you at all. If you are not, you are probably troubled by Google’s new privacy policy.

Post Script: In addition to the jail term, the judge sentenced Ravi to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service. He must also must pay court fines and contribute $10,000 to a state-licensed, community-based organization dedicated to assisting victims of bias crimes.

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