Two Incidences of Webcam Spying? Up to 10 Years in Prison. More Than 8,000 Incidences of Webcam Spying? No Charges.

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Kashmir Hill on the Ravi case:

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.

The opinion consensus seems to be shifting on this case. Of course now that Ravi has been convicted, the only opinion that matters belongs to the judge.

But Hill’s column reminded me of another webcam spying case. Remember this one?

A suburban Philadelphia school district embroiled in a webcam spy scandal was hit Tuesday with new allegations that a student-issued laptop secretly recorded more than 8,000 images.

The latest accusations, which were said to occur during a six-month period ending September 2008, has left the high school student “shocked, humiliated and severely emotionally distressed,” (.pdf) according to a federal invasion-of-privacy lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages.

As part of an FBI investigation and a lawsuit brought by a different student, a judge had contacted the boy’s parents informing him of the breach, and invited them to view the pictures. The youth’s parents were shown 4,404 webcam photographs and 3,978 screenshots captured with the Lower Merion School District–issued MacBook.

The amount of photos represents the largest publicly known number of images secretly recorded in the webcam scandal.

The latest lawsuit follows the October out-of-court settlement in which the district agreed to pay $610,000 to end two privacy lawsuits brought by two students who were also victims of the webcam spying scandal.

Want to guess how many Lower Merion School District Officials did prison time? Not a single one. They weren’t even charged, not even with misdemeanors. And of course the taxpayers, not the spying school officials, paid the settlement.

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30 Responses to “Two Incidences of Webcam Spying? Up to 10 Years in Prison. More Than 8,000 Incidences of Webcam Spying? No Charges.”

  1. #1 |  a_random_guy | 

    the taxpayers, not the spying school officials, paid the settlement

    This. When a civil servant has taken some irresponsible action that has little or nothing to do with their official duties, or when they carry out an official action with demonstrable incompetence, they should be personally liable for any costs associated with the action. This goes all the way up the line: if the action was authorized by a higher-up, that person shares in the liability.

    This would also be the solution for damages done by police officers, for example, when executing a no-knock warrant on the wrong house, shooting uninvolved neighbors, dogs, etc.. The risk of personal liability would wonderfully concentrate their minds.

    Finally, this could easily be extended to legislators who vote for laws that have, um, unfortunate consequences. Vote for a stupid law, pay the stupid price.

  2. #2 |  (B)oscoH | 

    How soon I forgot the outrage I felt. How soon I forgot the advice I was giving to anyone accepting PCs, laptops, phones, or other devices from schools or employers. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. #3 |  Mario | 

    Ravi is the victim of the current fashion in “outrage.”

  4. #4 |  Robert | 

    “One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.” – – Joseph Stalin

  5. #5 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I remember the idea of charging the school officials with kiddie porn. I still am doubtful that there weren’t at least some images that could be classified as such.

    Then we layer on top of that the state spying on us and our inability to record cops…mind so full of fuck now.

  6. #6 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    The agents of the State take care of their own. The rest of us are fair game.

  7. #7 |  Joseph Stalin | 

    I was pretty goddamned prescient back then!

  8. #8 |  Sam | 

    So if the state gets away with a crime (a different state, but whatever), then individual citizens (of different states) should too?

  9. #9 |  SJE | 

    What makes this worse than the numbers
    Teachers were spying on students in their homes. Ravi was a teenager spying on his roommate in his own room. To put this into legal perspective
    1. Teachers have a legal obligation to students: a duty of care. Ravi does not have a higher duty of care to Tyler.
    2. Teachers were spying on kids in their homes, which is a private space that no teacher has a right to enter. Ravi was spying in a room he shared with Tyler, which he does have a right to enter. I am not saying Ravi was not being a dick and violating privacy, but Ravi has actual rights regarding that room, while a teacher spying on kids has no right to be in the room.
    3. Teachers are adults spying on kids. Ravi and Tyler were 18/19 year’s old: young enough that we don’t allow him to drink. There is a diminished responsibility.
    4. I believe that there is a likelihood that the kids in PA were naked or partially dressed. The transmittal of images of nude children is a federal and state child porn felony. 18/19 year olds can legally act in porn movies.
    5. Taken outside of the death of Tyler, Ravi’s actions were not outrageous by the standards of his peers. The parents in PA were outraged.

  10. #10 |  el coronado | 

    Samo Samo. The Party protects its own.

  11. #11 |  FTP | 


    I don’t know that anyone is saying that one person/entity getting away with something justifies another person getting away with similar actions. The posts simply illustrate the stark contrast between the “punishment” meted out to the school officials, on the one hand, and the punishment Ravi may receive come May 21. You’re free to come to whichever conclusion you like.

  12. #12 |  SJE | 

    Sam: You might expect a different legal outcome if the states were vastly different legally or culturally. e.g. a self defense case would be very different in Texas than, say, Massachussets. However, the law and cultures of PA and NJ are very similar so, as a general rule, you expect similar facts to give the same results. The fact that the teachers are not charged in PA says more about the power of the state and the pathetic nature of much of the media.

  13. #13 |  JSL | 

    Wow, I’d forgotten about that PA case. Ravi is being tried in the court of public opinion because he’s not in lockstep with PC culture and the fact that he didn’t take the slap on the wrist deal offered by the DA. That the judge didn’t let the suicide notes in is telling. Nor was the 32 year old lover named in open court.

  14. #14 |  Benj | 

    I wrote about this case in the Reason hit and run comments a few days ago, many of the people there are insane.

  15. #15 |  H. Rearden | 

    Sam – why do you pretend to argue from some moral principal? A again ask that you come clean and admit that the only reason you applaud the Ravi verdict is because Clementi is a homosexual and that you think the verdict is a valid form of progressive social justice. If Clementi were not a homosexual you would be appalled by the verdict or, more likely, could not care less.

  16. #16 |  EBL | 

    This is the latest fad in “outrage” prosecutions. Wrong place, wrong time. While awaiting sentencing and appeal, Ravi should probably catch up on some Tom Wolfe books (Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full come to mind).

  17. #17 |  Mister Damage | 

    @Sam I don’t believe that anyone is saying that Ravi ought to get away with anything. Regardless of what anyone thinks Ravi ought to get away with it’s an interesting contrast and compare, don’t you think?

  18. #18 |  Jack Dunphy's Evil Twin | 

    America, f*ck yeah!

  19. #19 |  Penalty for webcam spying | 

    […] As Radley Balko notes, it seems to vary rather widely depending on whether the wrongdoer is a student or an educator. […]

  20. #20 |  Sam | 

    Various people throughout the threads that have been on this site have argued that what Ravi did is what 20-year-olds do and, as such, no big deal. Nobody, incidentally, is arguing that the schools in PA should have gotten away with their spying, least of all me. I am arguing that what those schools got away with doesn’t excuse Ravi also getting away with it. One injustice doesn’t justify a second one.

    As for Rearden’s comments: I’d be outraged if somebody spying on a straight couple wasn’t found guilty of the same crimes that Ravi was. Again, secretly taping people engaged in sexual activity strikes me as something more than innocent child’s play. But that’s me and my easily dismissed progressivism at work I suppose.

  21. #21 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @1 – And then insurance against that gets paid on the taxpayer’s dime.

    I personally don’t understand how the fuck the school incident WASN’T charged. We’re having some nice ongoing media witch hunts over phone taping here…

    (Sure, you can call the UK a CCTV nation. We also have a far stronger public/private divisor as to where and how recording others is allowed)

  22. #22 |  H. Rearden | 

    A college freshman sets up a webcam in his dorm room and remotely sees (not tapes and distributes) his roommate getting it on with some coed, not resulting in a suicide, and you’ll be ‘outraged’ if he doesn’t get 10 years prison and banishment from the country? I doubt it. If you look in enough college newspapers, I’m sure that you can find exactly this scenario. I’d like to see you express your ‘outrage’ over it.

  23. #23 |  a | 

    JSTT “hat the judge didn’t let the suicide notes in is telling.”

    What does it tell?

  24. #24 |  Sam | 

    Okay Rearden, here’s an example from Boston College: This sort of spying is beyond the boundaries of normal human discourse, nevermind its illegality. This student’s behavior was outrageous, no? Or do you consider that student’s behavior just as appropriate and acceptable as you do Ravi’s?

  25. #25 |  Rob in CT | 

    What Ravi did was sh*t, but putting him in prison for 10 years over it is a perverse result.

  26. #26 |  H. Rearden | 

    Nice strawman. Who ever said Ravi’s behavior was legal, appropriate or acceptable? Not me. Not anyone here. I’ve only argued that the sentence is grossly inappropriate.

    It appears that the BC case has proceeded as one would expect – he’s suspended from the team, and is facing university and criminal sanctions. This case is somewhat different in that the BC student appears to have made an audio recording and distributed it to others in some way. Not the case for Ravi. When the BC student accepts a 9-month probation plea, I look forward to your comments on how he deserved 8 years in prison. But no one killed themselves in this case – and Ravi’s sentence had nothing to do with Clementi’s suicide, as you have argued. Riiiight.

  27. #27 |  Sam | 


    Ravi turned down a similar plea deal. He brought the situation he’s now facing onto himself by believing that he’d done nothing wrong at any point throughout the entire situation. That’s plainly untrue.

  28. #28 |  Radley Balko | 

    He brought the situation he’s now facing onto himself by believing that he’d done nothing wrong at any point throughout the entire situation.

    Yes, he insisted on his constitutional right to a jury trial. So let’s punish him for that by convicting of him a a crime much more serious than he committed and giving him a much longer prison sentence than he deserves. That will send an important message to anyone who thinks they can get away with invoking their “rights.”

  29. #29 |  JSL | 

    #23, see Althouse’s take here:

  30. #30 |  H. Rearden | 

    I would think that allowing testimony that Clementi committed suicide days after the incident would be highly prejudicial if the prosecution is making no effort to argue that Ravi’s ‘intimidation’ had anything to do with it.