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Sex, scandal and the death of online privacy

Doug Gross
Because of emerging Internet technology, the most intimate of moments can now become very public, very quickly.
Because of emerging Internet technology, the most intimate of moments can now become very public, very quickly.
  • Duke "sex list" highlights disappearing privacy in a digital age
  • Experts say technology now means everybody can read the "bathroom wall"
  • With young children now online, education from parents and schools is key, expert says
  • Privacy advocate notes that emerging technology also has many positive uses

(CNN) -- College sex. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last.

But this time, the trysts of a female Duke University student became a PowerPoint presentation, complete with the names of the men, mostly athletes, she hooked up with and detailed reviews of their prowess, or lack thereof, in bed.

It was supposed to be a joke for a few friends. Instead, it became a worldwide internet sensation.

On the heels of the tragic suicide of a Rutgers University freshman after his roommate streamed online video of his same-sex, dorm-room encounter, the Duke case highlights a new truth of the digital age.

Now, more than ever, the most intimate of moments can become very public, very quickly.

Creating Web pages and streaming online video is easier than ever. And the growing number of mobile phones with cameras, both still and video, means that documentation is often just a click away.

"The real issue is that this information is now part of the global library that is the internet," Frederick Lane, author of "American Privacy,"told CNN. Video

Video: Sex 'thesis' goes viral

The ease of sharing digital information means it doesn't take much for things to find their way onto the internet. And once they are there, they can go viral within minutes.

An online search can find a webcam for as little as $10 in a matter of seconds. That same search finds a camcorder disguised as an ink pen for less than $40.


More than 80 percent of Americans own cell phones, and a smaller but growing number own smartphones. The younger you are, the more likely you are to have one, and virtually every model has photo and video capability.

Social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter make the old telephone game is a thing of the past. One post, and you've passed along the latest news to hundreds, if not thousands, of friends and followers who can immediately share it with a friends list of their own.

"Regular verbal rumors can be really strong -- on some level it doesn't seem that different whether it's something written on a bathroom wall or talked about in school," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The difference is that [online] suddenly everybody gets it, in all the salacious detail."

In the Duke case, the woman who made the list says she sent it to three friends. One of those friends sent it to another. And that was all it took.

She told Jezebel magazine that fraternities and other men make similar lists about women all the time, but that she never meant to make hers public.

"I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that," she told the magazine.

Propagating intimate details of someone's private life on the internet can demolish relationships and inflict psychological harm, said Gail Wyatt, director of the sexual health program at the University of California in Los Angeles.

"The internet is very public," Wyatt said. "Intimacy involves a lot of privacy. I think people have come to expect that they can talk about sex online, and that that's appropriate. And it's really not."

Facebook has become a breeding ground for leaking such info.

Many people, especially younger ones, may not realize how quickly juicy tidbits can spread and how impossible they are to take back.

Wyatt suggests discussing with your significant other beforehand about how open you'd like to be with your relationship. Also, consider scouring a room for hidden cameras or recording devices before getting down to business, she said.

Talk about a mood-killer.

"It has a psychological effect because it's hard to believe you can't actually control this behavior in another person," Wyatt said. "Once it's out, you can't get it back."

Lane said that as a graduating senior at a school like Duke, the woman should have known that even e-mailing a few friends with something so salacious could spread quickly.

But the problem starts much earlier, he said.

Lane said mobile phone use in the United States often begins at about 10 years old.

"We're putting very powerful tools in the hands of children who don't have a frame of reference on how they should be used," he said. "There are obviously very serious consequences when people break these kind of ethical and moral boundaries associated with privacy."

Education is the key, according to Lane.

"I don't think we've done a good enough job, either as parents or schools, to get that message across."

But Jeschke says that while cheap, easy access to information-sharing ability on the Web has downsides, it has far more upside.

"This technology isn't all bad -- it's a good thing," she said. "Those pen cams can be used for ill but also good -- investigative journalism and things like that. ... [With] blogging, you can have an amazing audience if you have the right message."

"The flip side is that it's not always used for the most sophisticated of purposes."


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