‘Leak’ of Celebrities’ Personal Property a Despicable, Eye-Opening Crime

There’s a difference between accidentally sharing a semi-nude photo of yourself and having your most intimate photos hacked, then stolen, and finally shared with the world without your permission.

A massive difference.

The former is a simple—albeit incredibly embarrassing—user error (see: “The Newsroom” actress Allison Pill’s 2012 Twitter snafu).

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The latter is a despicable and explicit violation of privacy.

Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson called this weekend’s widespread “leak” of hundreds of nude and semi-nude celebrity photos a sex crime.

Boston-based writer Luke O’Neil penned an essay for Esquire that deemed the viewing of the photos akin to stealing a piece of the celebrities’ souls.

I agree with both.

The facts: Allegedly, the iCloud accounts of stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton were hacked thanks to an Apple vulnerability that allowed for numerous log-in attempts without a forced lockout. Those attempts ultimately resulted in the release of hundreds of compromising photos on image-sharing website 4chan, which soon spun into a Reddit feeding frenzy.

The invasion of privacy here exists on multiple levels.

The first offense, obviously, comes from the single specific user or group of users who took the time to personally hack these accounts – likely writing and iterating on a script that would scrape e-mail addresses/Apple IDs and passwords, a non-trivial exercise even for a savvy web developer.

The next, no less invasive, comes from the myriad sites that deemed it journalistically justifiable to run said photos in an effort that feels less breaking news than it does breaking the law.

And finally, we have to mention Apple’s iCloud itself, which is no doubt left on in the background by thousands of unknowing users who assume their personal data is, well, their personal data.

Apple has since increased its security and told Variety that it is working with law enforcement officials to track down the source of a “very targeted attack.”

What we do know is that this type of content is flying across servers with petrifying regularity. Last year, Apple sold 150 million iPhones, estimated at 41.4 percent of market share; the implicit total market is thus roughly 362 million smart phones (!).

Last year, McAfee revealed that 54 percent of adults in a 1,500-person consumer study “send or receive intimate content including video, photos, emails and messages.”

Some quick math: if we assume that smart phones are used exclusively by adults, that’s about 195 million people involved in the “intimate exchange.”

In comparison, a recent Drexel University study revealed that 54 percent of college students admitted to sending or receiving “sexually explicit text messages or images” while under 18 years of age. You can see where I’m going here.

Now, dear iPhone users, I want you to think very carefully about the images you have taken with your phone. Do you have iCloud turned on?

After reading actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s tweets in response to the dissemination of photographs she believed to have been deleted long ago, I realized that not everyone (yes, even the celebrities we hold in such high esteem) understands how the photo backup in iCloud works.

Apple describes iCloud as being “Everywhere. Automatically.” and proclaims that a fall update of the iCloud Photo Library will put “every picture you take on every device you use” and that Family Sharing will make it “easy to share purchases from the iTunes Store, App Store, and more.”

Cue the trailer for “Sex Tape.”

A couple of years ago I myself came to the ugly realization that my iCloud was still backing up photos I had deleted from my phone. Get your mind out of the gutter — these weren’t nude selfies, but they were photos I thought I’d gotten rid of: duplicate photos of prepared food I’d taken for my food blog, shots from trips which I’d already backed up on my computer and removed from my phone’s hard drive.

I quickly turned off the iCloud photo stream and manually deleted the photos from my iCloud account.

Then I started digging deeper into what first felt like a personal aversion to the creepy factor of technology-is-everywhere. What else is out there?

Take Snapchat, for example. The wildly downloaded app (which runs on both iPhones and Android phones) boasts the ability to send photos or videos that live for mere seconds once opened by a recipient before being forever deleted from Snapchat servers.

Snapchat assures us that “From day one, we have promised our users that we delete their Snaps from our servers once they’ve been viewed by all recipients. That’s a promise we’ve always honored.”

While the company may not hang onto the Snaps, that doesn’t mean other people aren’t. You’d be hard pressed to find a frequent Snapchat user who hasn’t taken a screenshot of something they’ve been sent by a friend. The app’s privacy statement reads, “If we are able to detect that the recipient has captured a screenshot of a Snap that you send, we will attempt to notify you.”

Attempt? How comforting.

What’s even more frightening isn’t what Snapchat itself stores, but what the rest of the world is storing by virtue of the app.

In a 2013 Business Insiderstory, a then-24-year-old digital forensics examiner named Richard Hickman detailed how he had found a hidden cache of files in Android phones which stored Snapchat files. Although not easily accessible, the images were there, plain as day.

Much like the Snapchat files stored on Androids, millions of Apple users who have turned on Find My iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or Mac via iCloud after purchasing an Apple product must be wary of what exactly is being stored.

You’ll notice that I’ve yet to mention the fact that these celebrities took the photos in the first place. That is by design. Question the judgment of people all you want – make claims about their character, about what kind of person consciously decides to send pictures of themselves that you yourself would never send. That’s subjective.

What isn’t subjective is the extent to which personal privacy is being invaded – and, more broadly, the wake up call this might serve as for those of us (all of us?) who can’t seem to put our phones down for more than a minute.

Time to bring back Polaroids.

If you want to find out how to turn off your photo stream back-up, check out two detailed options via Forbes .