Webcams, sex, and the death of privacy.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 1 2010 8:19 AM

Bugged Naked

Webcams, sex, and the death of privacy.

Tyler Clementi wanted privacy. Like countless college freshmen before him, he needed a place to make out, but he had a roommate. So he asked his roommate to clear out of their Rutgers dorm room for a couple of hours.

The roommate, Dharun Ravi, obliged him. But Ravi left something behind: his computer. It had a webcam and an Internet connection. That's how Ravi got back into the room, according to police. He never touched the door or window. He just tapped into the webcam from a friend's computer down the hall. Through it, he saw Clementi making out with a man. Ravi tweeted his discovery, inviting 148 of his closest friends to access the webcam. A day later, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge and died.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Beyond the tweets and the webcam lies a convoluted tale of gay message boards, online masturbation, and a suicide announced on Facebook. What stands out is how ill-equipped these young men were, despite their technological savvy, for life in a digital world. Learning to live and love in college is hard. When you're gay, it's that much harder. But today's freshmen are grappling with something much stranger than being gay. They're growing up in a world where people are with you even when they aren't.

When I was a freshman, if your roommate left the room, you were alone. You could shut the door and make out. I'm sure Clementi thought the same thing. But he forgot to shut one last door: the webcam.

Clementi knew all about webcams. His Facebook photo is an obvious webcam product, and a highly NSFW webcam page at cam4.com  apparently shows lots more of him. But wanking online will take you only so far. Human beings need physical affection. So, three weeks into college, Clementi invited a man to his dorm room. This wasn't supposed to be cybersex. It was supposed to be the real thing.

Nature didn't prepare Clementi for what followed. Like the rest of us, he was designed for life in a material world. That's why we relate to people who are physically present. Clementi wasn't thinking about the webcam. He was thinking about being there, in that room, with that man.

Meanwhile, Ravi was watching him from a computer down the hall. You'd think a guy peeping at his roommate through a webcam would understand how public the Internet can be. But Ravi, too, was blind. "Roommate asked for the room till midnight," he typed. "I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Then Ravi hit a button, posting the message to Twitter.

It was an amused, derisive message, the kind of mean thing you might say to a friend in private. But Ravi wasn't in private. Within two days, a user named cit2mo—apparently Clementi's alias—was telling friends at justusboys.com, a gay Web forum, what Ravi had said. "I checked his twitter today," Clementi wrote. "He tweeted that I was using the room (which is obnoxious enough), AND that he went into somebody else's room and remotely turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy." Clementi went on to describe the responses from Ravi's friends. Their entire conversation was visible on Twitter.

For the three days of their cat-and-mouse game, the roommates never saw each other in person. When Clementi wanted Ravi to vacate the room for another tryst, he texted him. But now Clementi knew which door to shut—and which window in cyberspace would show him what Ravi was up to. On justusboys.com, Clementi reported: "When I got back to the room I instantly noticed he had turned the webcam toward my bed. And he had posted online again [saying] 'anyone want a free show just video chat me tonight'..."

Ravi's exact tweet was: "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again." But the show never aired. "I turned off and unplugged his computer, went crazy looking for other hidden cams....and then had a great time," Clementi told his buddies. One of them advised him: "You may want to take a screencap of his twitter feed if you want to go the legal route just so you have some evidence of his activity." Clementi replied: "haha already there baby."

Now the screen capture of Ravi's feed is all over the Internet. So is the screen capture of Clementi's forum messages. Below the messages, an administrator has written: "This could possibly be evidence in this whole sorry situation. Because of this I am locking this thread…" Somebody, presumably Ravi, has tried to delete his Twitter feed. Too late: It's already cached on Google.

One thing in this sorry tale can never be erased, and that's Clementi's suicide. He announced it—"jumping off the gw bridge sorry"—on Facebook. Near the bridge, police found his laptop and cell phone. Apparently, he used them to post the Facebook message. And then he jumped. It turned out that he wasn't a username, an avatar, or some random two-dimensional dude making out with another dude on a video feed. He was flesh and blood. His body hit the water. He died.

So here I sit, telling his story. I'm writing it from research files stored on a hard drive. But the hard drive isn't here in my office. It's in my wife's computer downstairs. Through a network, I can see most of what's on her machine. I'm there, even though I'm not. Next to her computer is a laptop with a built-in webcam. I didn't ask for the webcam, and it's never been activated, as far as I know. But I've never thought to check.

At Rutgers, students are acting like it's still the 1960s. On Wednesday, a bunch of them lay down in front of the student center to protest Clementi's death. Their leader said they were doing it for "all of those people, including Tyler, who have felt so alone." But what Clementi learned too late is that his feelings were mistaken. He wasn't alone. Neither are you.

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