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The death of privacy and the illusion of freedom

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” These were the last words of Tyler Clementi, posted on his Facebook profile a few minutes before he leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge outside New York City.

The 18-year old student was outed as being gay after Dharun Ravi, his roommate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, along with another friend, Molly Wei, who had a room on the same corridor, secretly filmed Clementi using a webcam set up in his room to stream a live video of him involved in a “sexual encounter” with another man over the internet.

Ravi broadcast the details of his voyeuristic stunt later that night to his 150 Twitter followers, outing Clementi in the process. His tweet read, “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.”

Two evenings later, Ravi tweeted again “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9.30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.” The following day, in despair and leaving no clues to his emotional turmoil beside the Facebook update, Clementi is believed to have driven to the bridge, leaving his car, his wallet and mobile phone on a side road before committing suicide.

Ravi and Wei, also both 18, have subsequently been charged with invasion of privacy, but this tragic case raises some questions: How much of this can be blamed on technology? Are we living in a world where privacy is well and truly dead? How can we protect our kids and ourselves?

Dismantling the illusion
The birth of the World Wide Web and mobile technology irrevocably changed the way we communicate with each other. We were overwhelmed with the new freedoms that opened up to us – imagine engaging people on a global basis without leaving the couch, and anonymously being anyone you ever wanted to be?

This is now the norm, but the ‘freedom’ of the internet is an illusion –everything we do online is monitored, recorded, controlled, sold and open to the scrutiny of the global public. We are trapped in our own web of mass social communication.

Of course these technological developments have huge benefits if used responsibly, but where do we draw the line?

Status Awareness
The concept that social networks enhance our personal communications is also an illusion – none of it is real. Our profiles are all about ego; they are adverts for idealistic projections of ourselves. They force us to constantly question what everyone else is thinking of us: strangers, friends, acquaintances, potential partners, our children, our parents, employers and employees.

How often do we edit, delete or ‘untag’ photos to make sure those on our profiles always show us to be skinny, tanned and happy with flawless skin? Or feel our updates always have to be intelligent and witty?

What effect does this status awareness have on teenagers and young people? Often the pressure becomes overwhelming – then add bullying and victimisation to the mix and tragedy strikes as Clementi’s death demonstrates. The pressure to be ‘cool’ and be included means it is difficult to avoid putting yourself out there on social networks, but when it is all an act you can lose perspective. This is confusing, to teenagers in particular, as they try to establish their place in the world. Ironically, teenagers – such avid users of social media – probably need privacy more than anyone else.

Social networks exist to gather and sell information. Users are lead to believe that they are customers, but in reality they are products being sold. These communication tools are firmly entrenched in our everyday lives and users cannot always hold social networks responsible. Ultimately, each of us chooses whether or not to put our information out there. It is up to us all to remove the wool from our eyes and make sure we are aware of the consequences.

Sadly intolerance, bullying, abuse and victimisation will continue to exist and it is easier to get away with cyber-bullying or abuse because it is easier to hide. Bullies online can be anonymous and untouchable. There are no bruises to see, no punches to witness, and mental abuse can be infinitely worse than physical. It can also be incessant online – it is easier to mobilise a lot more people to take part in the abuse, all at once.

It is not only young people who are open to abuse of their privacy. Technology makes it easier for adult partners to bully and abuse each other emotionally. It has become a tool for control and generates insecurity that may not exist otherwise. Most people have ‘stalked’ an ex or current partner online, and analysed every update they make?

So what do we do?
We probably expose fewer details of our lives as we get older and busier with responsibilities, but by the time younger generations have grown up the damage may be done. Will they be able to distinguish the real from the pretend?

Only time will tell, but we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and a duty to protect both ourselves and younger generations born into a world with few boundaries, and where privacy is a commodity.

In conclusion and to answer the questions posed: How much of this can be blamed on technology? Well, not that much really.

The technology is neutral and it is not going away — the genie is out of the bottle. Ultimately it does more good than bad, so the blame lies more in a lack of responsibility, education and an understanding of the risks.

Are we living in a world where privacy is well and truly dead? Not yet, there is still time to prevent this from happening by equipping younger generations with the knowledge of where to draw the line.

How can you protect your kids and yourself? Simply put – education. Make sure you know all the terms and conditions of the communication tools that both you and your children use, know who is viewing your information and know how to use it responsibly by respecting the privacy of others.

Author | Catherine Murray: Columnist

Catherine Murray: Columnist
Catherine is currently the Senior Account Manager at Creative Spark Interactive in Cape Town, where she is attempting to whip everyone into shape at breakneck speed. Prior to this she was Head of Online at Atalink Ltd, a specialist publishing company based in Central London for 5 years, where... More

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