Sunday, September 9, 2012

Does webcam spying deserve a 10 year prison sentence?

The below article from Forbes Magazine outline the argument that is happening in each state.

Under federal law, the penalty for video voyeurism — what Ravi did in secretly watching Clementi’s sexual encounter via webcam — is just one year in prison or a fine. In New Jersey, the penalty for invasion of privacy is a maximum penalty of five years (something state lawmakers considered revising after the Clementi case). But because of the hate crime charge and the jury’s finding that Clementi might have felt intimidated because of his sexual orientation, Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison (as well as deportation to India, where he was born but hasn’t lived since he was 2).

Setting aside Clementi’s death — which Ravi was not charged with — is a potential 10-year prison sentence for webcam spying just? How much prison time should people get for invasions of privacy?

Laws vary from state to state — invasion of privacy is a misdemeanor in some and a felony in others. What doesn’t vary from state to state is that invasions of privacy happen a lot. They’re just too temptingly easy in the digital age when surveillance equipment is cheap and so much digital information is stored in easy reach. Store managers hide cameras in tanning salon rooms and ladies’ restrooms. Teenagers read each others’ email. Paranoid boyfriends and girlfriends sneak peeks at their significant others’ smartphones to review text messages and call histories. Suspicious spouses secretly place GPS trackers on their loved ones’ cars or install spyware on their computers and phones. But few of those guilty of these invasions of privacy actually get charged for it (or even caught).

As a society, we’re struggling with this every day. We cherish our own privacy, but we love to invade that of other people. And we’re still trying to decide just how important privacy is, and how far we should go legally to protect it.

Earlier this year, in explaining why Scotland Yard dropped its investigation into phone hacking by News of the World journalists, a former Scotland Yard official explained that his agency privileged other safety issues over privacy: “Invasions of privacy are odious, distressing and illegal … but to put it bluntly they don’t kill you, terrorists do,” said Peter Clarke.

That’s why the case of Clementi and Ravi has attracted so much attention. It’s the rare case in which invasion of privacy may have resulted in someone’s death. I emphasize the “may” because it’s far from clear that the webcam spying was the direct cause of Clementi’s suicide; despite the overwhelming amount of digital evidence in the case, we have no way to know what was in Tyler Clementi’s head when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. And regardless, that is not what Ravi is supposed to be punished for. He is supposed to be sentenced based solely on the actual spying he did, his intimidation of Clementi, and his futile attempts to discard the digital evidence in the case.

Should a twenty-year-old go to prison for 10 years for that? Should he be deported from the country? The judge has those options in sentencing, but they don’t seem just. Ravi’s spying on Clementi’s bedroom encounter was shameful and invasive, but he didn’t push Clementi off of that bridge. We shouldn’t sentence him as if he did.

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