The Internet of Nudes — is this what we wished for?

The widespread release of nude photographs across the internet is not confined to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence – sexy “selfies” are going “viral” among teenagers too.

In just a couple months between August and October 2014, thousands of hacked digital photographs – many of them of naked or semi-dressed young people and celebrities – found their way into the public domain.

sexy selfie meme

The typical chain of events involved some geeky hackers announcing that they’d accessed some kind of online storage space that was supposed to be under secure digital lock and key, and were going to upload racy and compromising photographs to somewhere on the web where anyone with an internet browser would be able to see them.

Images of nude celebrities form a kind of sick digital currency in some murky corners of the internet. On sites like 4chan and Reddit there are (or at least were) publicly accessible threads with names like “The Fappening” where such images were posted. The people who posted them – usually anonymously – were considered the coolest hackers because of their ability to forage around and steal the images from mobile phones or other sources.

Both Reddit and 4chan had “rules” that supposedly prevented illegally obtained or copyright-breaching images being uploaded, but the rules were pretty much ignored by everyone involved until a big public scandal drew attention to them.

For the people who break into smartphones or cloud storage servers to steal the private images there is kudos and ego-satisfying status in the hacker community; for the (largely) pubescent male viewers there is the prospect of sexual titillation and the excitement of sharing in something a little bit dirty and a whole lot of illegal.

However, for the celebrities whose images are stolen there is only anger and potentially embarrassment.

Many of the young stars were outraged, and the public backlash against the hackers was severe. Star of the Hunger Games movie franchise, Jennifer Lawrence, was particularly outspoken. She called the hacking a sexual assault and several other victims of the hack – who were mainly young, attractive women – joined her condemnation of everyone who posted and reposted the images.

In a long interview published in the October 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, Lawrence spoke of her anger and embarrassment, but she also stood up for her right to participate in the taking of the images and to share them with her partner:

The 24-year-old actress had not previously commented on the incident, but she spoke to [Vanity Fair journalist, Sam] Kashner at length about the anger she felt. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.

Lawrence also lashed the celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, who had been one of the first to repost the stolen images of Lawrence and others. Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

He took it down because people got pissed, and that’s the only reason why. And then I had to watch his apology. And what he basically said was, ‘I just didn’t think about it.’ ‘I just didn’t think about it’ is not an excuse. That is the exact issue itself.

It was a scathing attack on Hilton who has made himself as famous and rich as the celebrities he targets on his website. Hilton had already apologised for putting up the hacked nude photographs, and he went further in an interview saying that he would not do it again and that he realised he’d made a terrible ethical mistake in originally republishing the photos. Perhaps Hilton was feeling so contrite because the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper in the UK was still so fresh in the public’s memory .

When asked what prompted his change of stance about publishing intimate celebrity photos, Hilton told website Digital Spy: “I look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn. I made a mistake and instead of not doing anything I decided not to post any photos of anybody like that going forward, which I haven’t.”

Perez also told Digital Spy that having a child of his own made him more conscious of how his behaviour might affect other people: “I’ve been trying to do better and be better for four years now. I’m not perfect, I’m not trying to be, but it’s a constant journey and a process.”

The dump of nude celebrity images, reportedly stolen from their iCloud accounts, was not the first incident of its kind, but the outcry seems to have been more effective this time in shutting it down. But it won’t perhaps prevent it from happening again.

In the age of television shows like Big Brother, The Bachelor and Dating Naked encouraging all of us to be voyeurs on the private moments of people subject to constant surveillance for our pleasure, it his not hard to believe that more hacks and more photo-dumps will occur.

At the end of the day the commercial success of “pervy” television means that while there’s a buck to be made from voyeuristic surveillance, others will try to cash in. Not only that, many of us consider celebrities fair game; they make their money from exposure and from selling themselves – via television, movies, music videos or their own self-promotion of “branded” material – so they shouldn’t be surprised when our interest in their private lives goes beyond what they might be contractually obliged to share with us.

This doesn’t make it ethically “OK” for us to download their hacked images for our own viewing pleasure, nor does it justify sleazy ex-partners or former friends from selling their “sex tape” escapades to pornographers – but it does explain why it still happens. Sex sells, and illicit sex sells for an even higher price. There will always be unscrupulous people willing to exploit weaknesses in human nature, or digital exploits on secure servers.

I find it hard not to agree with Jennifer Lawrence: hacking is like breaking into someone’s house to steal from them. When the images that are stolen are personal and private then it does become a sex crime, as Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.

Everybody’s doing it: What could go wrong?

It’s not only celebrities whose private images are stolen; it can happen to anyone. In early October 2014 it was widely reported that users of the mobile social app Snapchat had also been caught in a targeted hacking operation that meant potentially tens of thousands of people were going to see their private photos made public.

selfy screen grabThis event, in which perhaps close to 100,000 images were uploaded to a public server, has been dubbed the “Snappening”, a semantic cross-reference to the celebrity hack the “Fappening”. The issue here is that many of the stolen images were of young teenagers, many of them under 18 years old. This created the added danger that anyone sharing or accessing the images could be accused of transmitting or downloading child pornography – a very, very serious offence.

This is a curious story because the popular Snapchat app allows users to send images and short videos to each other, but the program deletes them after a short period of time. However, there are third-party apps that work with Snapchat to allow users to save files forwarded to them without the sender’s knowledge. According to news reports it was one of these apps, Snapsaved, that was actually hacked and where the images were leaked from.

It’s not entirely clear if the leaked images did or did not make it onto a public website but, if they were, they were quickly taken down. What we do know is that the notorious 4chan community was again involved, although some users claim that it, too, was hoaxed by the original scammers.

Snapchat is incredibly popular with young users – about 50% of its estimated 30 million users are aged 13–17. To protect its reputation, the company is aggressively attempting to have apps like Snapsave shut down.

A Snapchat spokeswoman told The Huffington Post: “We can confirm that Snapchat’s servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks.

“Snapchatters were victimised by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users’ security,” the spokeswoman said.

However, it’s not always anonymous geeky hackers who breach our trust. A Sydney University student was recently disciplined for sharing images of a semi-naked female colleague with his friends. He had taken the picture during a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, but without her consent. The picture was then circulated among the man’s friends.

In the United States, 31 teenagers at a high school near Detroit are being investigated in a widespread “sexting” scandal. According to police investigating the case, the practice of teenagers sending and receiving nude or semi-nude images of each other is “widespread”.

Attorney Shannon Smith told the Detroit News: “This is happening everywhere, it’s over the top. I have been contacted by schools and parents elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties who have found similar photos on their children’s cellphones and want to know what to do about it.”

Well, perhaps there’s a difference between consensual sexting and hacking someone’s phone or private server, but if images are being shared then they are probably circulating to a wider group than the original sender intended. Officials are also worried about people being put under pressure, even bullied, into participating.

Surely there’s got to be a lesson in this somewhere, but what is it? Well, it’s easy for me – a middle-aged academic who doesn’t use Snapchat or post nude selfies on iCloud – to say: “Don’t post nude selfies!” However, I realise that such advice sounds trite and that thousands, if not millions, of people ignore it every day. However, there is some point in being careful about your privacy in online and social media environments.

If someone does feel pressured into sexting then they should certainly be telling someone about it. Under any circumstances, “No!” must mean exactly that. Nobody should be bullied into doing anything they don’t want to do.

The famous whistleblower (of, if you’re the American government, the infamous traitor) Edward Snowden recently gave his version of my advice at a conference he was asked to speak at. According to Snowden, everyone who cares about their digital privacy should stay away from popular consumer internet services like Dropbox, Facebook and Google.

“Facebook and Google! OMG! That’s a disaster, right?” Yes, I know that’s what you’re all thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How can anyone live today without being on Facebook or using Dr Google to answer all our difficult questions?

Well, Snowden thinks we should all be using encryption tools and finding online and social media services that support encryption. You can also use anonymous routers to disguise your location from prying eyes on the web too. And don’t forget to delete your browser history whenever you’ve finished surfing the web.

Of course, encrypting phone messages, emails or Skype chats only works if the person you’re communicating with is also using the encryption service. Once a message is encrypted (i.e. scrambled so that nobody can read it) it has to be unscrambled at the other end. This is not yet an easy and everyday thing for us to do. It is complicated and can be expensive, but maybe it is what we all have to consider.

Maybe if Jennifer Lawrence and the other hacked celebrities had been using an encrypted cloud server nobody would have been able to access their files, or at least not been able to unscramble them to share with anyone else.

But if you’re sending sexy selfies to your beau, then encrypting them is going to take the “sexy” out for sure. The problem is perhaps that we have to trust other people in order to keep our secrets safe – and that isn’t always possible.

The best thing is to be careful, remember that privacy is your right and only you can consent to it being breached.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

Issues109

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