The biggest news story over Labor Day weekend was the publication of hundreds of nude photos of dozens of A-list Hollywood celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice. The images surfaced first on the popular image-sharing bulletin board site 4Chan and now can be found virtually all over the Internet.
According to the latest reports a group of anonymous hackers exploited potential vulnerabilities in a cloud-based web storage system to steal hundreds of private celebrity images over the course of several months. In the wake of these most recent revelations and a string of other high-profile data breaches over the past year, our hard drives, cell phones and file lockers are feeling increasingly vulnerable. "You have to wonder whether online privacy is dead or just on life support, when photos stored in the cloud with the same level of encryption used by major financial institutions are compromised over a period of months across dozens of accounts," said Todd William, founder and CEO of Reputation Rhino, an online reputation management company in New York City.
The exposure (or overexposure) of the compromising images also reveal the ongoing tension between our insatiable desire to share and save content, whether it's photos, e-mails or other personal information, and our simultaneous quest to maintain a reasonable level of privacy and anonymity online.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints—ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet protocol (IP) address. Unfortunately, many of these steps are proving insufficient and, even worse, obsolete, as hackers technical skills are advancing faster than the ordinary person's ability to defend him or herself.
In the same Pew survey, 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people's privacy online. It may take stiffer civil and criminal penalties and an attitudinal cultural change to restore privacy as a priority over our perceived need to know, see and keep everything we ever write or snap.
After the photos surfaced online, concerns were raised that Lawrence and other celebrities' images were obtained unlawfully from their iCloud accounts. Apple denied that any security flaw was a factor in the breach, stating in a press release that "certain celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions," but reassured millions of concerned users that the theft was not a result of a breach in any of Apple's systems, including iCloud or Find my iPhone.
"The data breach underscores the importance of having a proactive public relations plan designed to swiftly respond to any unwanted disclosure and protect the reputation of the celebrity or brand," explains Qamar Zaman, founder and CEO of Submit Press Release 123, a Dallas-based press release and news distribution company, "we are seeing a surge in interest from companies wanting to get in front of the news and manage a crisis through the media." Zaman's company is expected to gross over $15M in 2015 – an increase of nearly 50% year over year.
The theft and widespread public disclosure raise a number of questions about whether any image, even those that have been deleted by the user can ever be permanently erased. Actress Mary E. Winstead added to jittery celebs concerns with her statement, "[k]nowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked."
The disclosure is also prompting questions about whether the media is further victimizing the women violated by the hackers by publicizing the unauthorized photos.
Some media outlets immediately rushed to publish the stolen images, some obscuring explicit shots, while others, including controversial celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, originally published the nude images without redaction, before replacing with censored images.
"This is a flagrant violation of privacy," Jennifer Lawrence's publicist Liz Mahoney said in a written statement. "The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence."
Kate Upton's attorney, Lawrence Shire, released the following statement after confirming the images were, in fact, real: "This is obviously an outrageous violation of our client Kate Upton's privacy. We intend to pursue anyone disseminating or duplicating these illegally obtained images to the fullest extent possible."
The FBI is also investigating the alleged hack stating that it is "aware of the allegations concerning computer intrusions and the unlawful release of material involving high profile individuals, and is addressing the matter."
The FBI will probably be looking closely at the anonymous hacker networks and file sharing sites, like 4chan, a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images. The trading of the illicit images were also fueled by bitcoin currency exchanges that are increasingly difficult to trace and has been linked to funding various nefarious activities, including online gambling, money laundering and drugs.
"We are living in an era of radical transparency. The idea of privacy -- our own and others -- is changing in very dramatic ways and it is scary navigating this brave new world. I'd like to think that after this latest scandal, we're all going to be a lot more careful before we post anything online we wouldn't want our parents or children to see," says William, "but the sad reality is, people probably aren't going to change anything at all."