There’s little to like about the voyeuristic coverage of the theft of images of famous women. Whether it is the feverish frottage of the mainstream press (which largely boils down to LOOK AT ‘EM ALL, IMAGINE ‘EM ALL NAKED, NNNNNNNNGGGGGG!!!!!) or the inevitably crass victim blaming (thank you, Ricky Gervais, for The Office and for absolutely nothing else), it’s all depressing.
The data protection strand in all this hasn’t been much better. Mobile devices are not a safe place to store sensitive data (true). The cloud is – in Graham Cluley’s immaculate phrase – just someone else’s computer (true). But too many security commentators have, perhaps unwittingly, aligned themselves with a ‘They asked for it’ line of thinking. A popular analogy is the one about burglary or car theft (this is an example from 2011). Apparently, you can’t complain if you leave your valuables on the front seat of your car and somebody steals them, and the same goes for pictures of your bits and the internet. In other words, the thinking is more or less that if Jennifer Lawrence is silly enough to take pictures of herself naked, she was basically asking for them to be stolen. For me, this is too close to the mentality that blames rape victims for being drunk, rather than rapists for being rapists. Friends, I blame the rapists.
Taking pictures of oneself is normal for most people, not just actresses – I am odd because I don’t do it, but if I was good looking, I probably would, all the time. It must be great to be extraordinary, and to enjoy being extraordinary. It’s too easy to be holier-than-thou and say that the violated only have themselves to blame. The victims made these images for themselves or they made them for someone else specific. They did not make the images for the media, or for the voyeurs who stole, sold or search for them. Anyone who handles or seeks them out violates the subject’s privacy, is a criminal and should be treated as such. The victims did nothing remotely scandalous or reprehensible – indeed, they did nothing that is anyone else’s business but their own. They probably didn’t do a privacy impact assessment before taking the pics, but that’s because they’re human beings and not data controllers.
The car analogy doesn’t work because mobile phones and the internet are not immediately understandable physical objects and spaces. When you leave your laptop on the passenger seat of your car, you can turn around and see the laptop sitting there. The risk is apparent and obvious. There’s a striking moment in Luc Besson’s current film ‘Lucy’ where Scarlett Johansen can see data streams soaring out of mobile phones across Paris, and navigates her way through them. We don’t see data like this. Few understand how the internet actually works (I’ve met a lot of people who think cloud storage means that data is floating in the air like a gas). We don’t see the data flowing or spot the footprint it leaves behind. We don’t know where the data ends up and the companies we use don’t tell us. We use unhelpful misnomers like ‘the cloud’ when we mean ‘server in a foreign land’. Many people don’t know how their phones work, where their data is stored, how it is copied or protected, or who can get access to it. This should be the problem that the photo hack alerts us to.
It’s possible that some people would change the way they used technology if they fully understood how it works, but that should be their choice, based on clear information provided by the manufacturers. At least one of those affected has confirmed that the images of her are quite old, so we can’t even judge the situation on what we know now. If taking the pics was a mistake (and I don’t think I’m entitled to say it was), it was a mistake made possibly years ago.
I don’t think people understand where their data is or how it is stored. Rather than wagging our fingers at the victims of a sex crime, anyone involved in data protection and security should concentrate on educating the world about the risks. I think the big tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook would be uncomfortable with this idea, which is why security and sharing are presented as such tedious, impenetrable topics. They don’t want more informed use of their services, they just want the data like everyone else. The defaults for sharing and online storage, for location and tracking, for a whole variety of privacy invasive settings should be set to OFF. Activities involving risk should be a conscious choice, not an accidental side effect of living in the 21st century.