Hackers break into cloud storage, unleash torrential rain of celebrity nude photos

The Washington Post brings us a fresh lesson in the dangers of sending racy material into the Internet cloud, starring one of the most popular actresses in the world:

On Sunday, the Internet practically melted down when racy photos, allegedly of celebrities including “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence, started surfacing around the Internet. As with any report of nude photos, people immediately questioned the authenticity. But the frenzy picked up when Lawrence’s publicist confirmed that these were stolen photos, and promised that there would be legal action.

“This is a flagrant violation of privacy. The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence,” her representative said in a statement Sunday evening.

Buzzfeed reported that the Web forum 4chan was behind the leak, and that a “master list” of all the hacked celebrity photos includes Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among others.

Ms. Winstead seemed particularly upset by the leaked photos, which she evidently thought had been completely deleted long ago:

Winstead spoke out about the hack via Twitter. “To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves,” the “Scott Pilgrim v. the World” actress tweeted. “Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked.”

There are a few basic lessons here, including “nothing is every really deleted” and “no online storage is completely secure.”  It bears repeating that hackers are winning the digital security war – the most aggressive mischief-makers and data thieves are one step ahead of the defenders.  I suspect some of the victims of the latest hack might not have realized their digital devices of choice were uploading their racy images to the cloud, or that deleting a local copy of the files doesn’t automatically wipe out the online version.  

This is a consequence of online storage becoming so automated and transparent.  As with so much of the Internet, it’s a strength that is also a weakness, a powerful muscle that also serves as an Achilles heel.  Seamless cloud integration is a marvelous boon to productivity and convenience; I’ll bet the tech support guys at companies like Apple and Google enjoy weekly rounds of applause from panicked customers who thought important files were gone forever, and were delighted to learn cloud backups could be salvaged.  Even computer games often store scoring information and game progress online these days, so if you’re 80 percent finished with a massive adventure and your hard drive gets all loislernered, you don’t have to start over again after your computer gets fixed.  

The down side, of course, is that cloud storage can be hacked, and the same convenience that makes it a wondrous technology also lulls users into sloppy data security practices… such as not realizing that backup copies of those private photos are floating around in cyberspace.  And if you happen to be a celebrity, the odds of your data being discovered by hackers and disseminated around the world in a flash of electronic lightning are much greater.  Considering how many times this sort of thing has happened in the past, it’s a wonder celebrities and politicians aren’t hiring teams of data specialists and white-hat hackers to secure even their smallest personal electronics and wipe out their digital footprints.

As to why Jennifer Lawrence was taking racy photos of herself: that’s entirely her business. She has the same right to privacy as the rest of us. It’s just astounding that anyone would still engage in such frolic with a device that could put the pictures online automatically, or that anyone would deliberately load such photos onto a computer with Internet access. Celebrities are given a lot of their electronic toys as gifts, and they probably don’t spend a lot of time reading the instruction manuals. They need to start doing so, or hiring advisers who will.


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