After Rutgers Spycam Case, Universities Grapple With Privacy Online

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The conviction of Dharun Ravi in the Rutgers webcam spying trial last week raises difficult questions for universities when it comes to protecting students online and ensuring their policies keep up with the realities of campus life.

In that case, Ravi was convicted on 15 counts including privacy invasion and bias intimidation, after he used a webcam in his dorm room to spy on his roommate Tyler Clementi’s intimate encounter with another man.

Ravi also used Twitter to tell other students that they, too, could peer in on his roommate. Clementi committed suicide days after learning about these events.

Though this incident brought media attention to the Rutgers University campus, these issues extend beyond its borders and experts say few schools have figured out how to address them.

Tseyi Ting, 20, a junior at New York University, lives in a dorm on Third Avenue with three other students and says privacy concerns in the digital era are part of college life.

Ting, like many of her peers, has a highly wired dorm room: she uses a MacBook Air for school assignments, barely sets down her iPhone and occasionally works on her iPad.

If someone attempted to tamper with her life online, she said she would confront them.

“Other than that, I don’t know what else I can do,” Ting said.

She said that although she’s never had a problem, her friend had to change her Facebook password after learning that an ex-boyfriend was logging in to read her private messages.

The problem is that students don’t know what to do when someone invades their privacy, according to Parry Aftab, a lawyer who specializes in cybercrime and advises college campuses on how to create policies that keep up with how students are using new technologies.

“It’s the modern generation’s version of us going through our boyfriend’s wallets,” she said.

But on campus, every student has a kind of online wallet full of valuables.

“They know each other’s passwords,” Aftab continued. “They may often share the account. They may be taking pictures of each other that are embarrassing. They may scroll through their text messages, and emails on their smart phones or look at the pages their looking at and use their account.”

More than a quarter of college students claimed they had been a victim of cyber-bullying, according to Dr. Anne Lombard, who was part of a team that surveyed students at Ohio University in Athens, OH.

She presented this research as part of a panel at a national conference of Student Affairs Administrators last week, as the Ravi case was coming to a close.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Lombard, who is also Dean of Student Life at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.

She said many of her colleagues are still trying to figure these issues out. She recommends schools beef up their online codes of conduct, and spend time educating students on what values are acceptable on campus. But the thorniest issue for college campuses going forward will be where to draw the line between what is freedom of speech and what is harassment.

But given the Ravi case, this question is all the more urgent.

“As a university administrator, I find myself wondering what the implications will be for us on campus. There’s not a lot of clarity here,” Lombard said.