Celebgate is probably the biggest privacy breach of the most famous people ever to come to public attention all at once. If you didn’t feel vulnerable after the massive Target breach or after Mat Honan’s epic hacking, surely you should feel exposed now that dozens of rich and famous celebrities have had their private photos stolen.
The breach itself wasn’t that interesting to me — it seemed inevitable. What was interesting was how quickly some celebrities admitted the photos were real, even though they could have easily argued otherwise.
A representative for Jennifer Lawrence, whose photos were leaked first, confirmed the authenticity of the photos right away. Model Kate Upton’s lawyers confirmed her photos. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, confirmed her photos and condemned the thieves on Twitter. Glee actress Becca Tobin wrote "Merry XXXmas!" on Twitter, a cheeky reference to her photo, which allegedly shows her standing next to a Christmas tree. Kirsten Dunst confirmed her photos with a charming emoji tweet: "Thank you iCloud (pizza) (shit)."
Stealing someone's naked photos is the same as tearing someone's clothes off in public. It's sexual assault.— Lucas Neff (@RealLucasNeff) September 1, 2014
There was nothing, at least at first, that proved the photos were authentic. Most people have never heard of 4chan; a CNN anchor assumed it was the hacker’s name. Some of the photos included in the leak actually do look fake, and one of Victoria Justice’s alleged photos was shown to be a Photoshop of an old, fully-clothed picture.
So why did Lawrence, Upton, and others fess up so quickly? There may be an element of all-publicity-is-good-publicity here, but I think there is something else going on: if you’re a celebrity in the Western world and you’re not in a Christian rock band, there are many mistakes that would hurt your career more than having your nude body posted on the internet among literally uncountable numbers of other nude bodies. It’s not the Nixon tapes. It’s not Michael Phelps’ bong. It’s not 1956. Many of these stars had already appeared naked or close to it in movies, music videos, and on their own Instagram accounts.
It’s not the Nixon tapes. It’s not Michael Phelps’ bong. It’s not 1956.
That’s not to diminish the attack: it was mean, it was criminal, and the psychological consequences of having one’s privacy violated to such an extreme degree can’t be overstated. But it was remarkable that so many celebrities faced the scandal head on, and many people spoke up, successfully, to defend them.
In the wake of Celebgate, those who argued "don’t take nude selfies" (New York Times writer Nick Bilton, comedian Ricky Gervais) were countered by others (Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, porn star-turned-actress Sasha Grey) who argued that the lesson should be "don’t steal nude selfies." Bilton apologized; Gervais deleted his offending tweet. When the gossip blogger Perez Hilton posted some of the photos, readers excoriated him until he removed them and apologized profusely. "It was so wrong that some people are viewing me and calling me a rapist and sex offender," he said in an emotional video. "I may not agree with that, but I need to really take a moment and let that sink in."
Even just a few years ago, nude selfie abstinence was considered the norm. That’s changed. "Much like telling people not to have sex until marriage to protect themselves against STDs, pregnancy, and heartbreak, it’s not practical advice for most people," Kashmir Hill wrote at Forbes. "The digital age has changed courtship in many ways, and this is one of them."
A writer for the 137-year-old The Washington Post also stuck up for sexters. "When a nude photo arrives on the Internet, unbidden, it’s generally the result of two people’s discrete actions," Caitlin Dewey writes. "Person number one is well within the bounds of every mainstream moral, legal and ethical code since the dawn of photography. Person number two is shamelessly violating another person’s privacy and exploiting said violation for personal gain, often in the process of also committing multiple computer and / or wire-tapping crimes. Two people. Two actions. But only one of them is wrong. How darkly hilarious and unfair and illogical, then, that the one who is not wrong gets blamed."
Old narrative: sexting is for idiots. New narrative: sexting is common
Old narrative: sexting is for idiots. If your photos end up on the internet, it’s because you shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. New narrative: sexting is a common and accepted way to flirt. If your photos end up on the internet, it’s because someone stole them and posted them illegally.
So if attitudes are changing, and nude selfies, leaked or not, are increasingly common, does that mean it’s not so bad if your nude selfies end up online? Will non-celebrities see the repercussions of their indiscretion diminish as well, as security breaches and sexting becomes normalized?
The answer seems to be yes, but only very slowly, in some parts of the country, and in less conservative cultures. Schools and advocacy groups that warn kids about sexting repeatedly cite two consequences: "College admissions officers or potential employers could end up seeing sext messages or photos." But I spoke to two college admissions officers in the Northeast who said colleges do not and should not care if a student was the victim of a Celebgate-type attack. "Ask any admissions counselor, and they will have dozens of stories more shocking than a student's nudes," says Shane Pech, a college admissions officer at Syracuse University until October 2013. "It could happen to anyone," says Stephanie Klein Wassink, a former Northwestern admissions officer who now owns a business reviewing student applications. "I think, for the most part, the school would be sympathetic."
Having private information published is traumatic, no matter what it is, and downplaying the consequences excuses the thieves
The arc of history could also swing back toward puritanism, warns Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University. "I can go either way on this," he says. "Sometimes I think that, since this is occurring so often, we’re going to have employers, we’re going to have admissions coordinators, that understand this is how it happens and we shouldn’t really be judging people based on what has been posted about them. But then, I also think that maybe we will somehow move toward more of a conservative bent, and employers and admissions coordinators will be looking for a very clean digital reputation at all costs."
There may come a day when nude photos are no big deal. But for now, they still cause serious harm more often than they don't. The worst damage is usually psychological. Kids whose illicit photos are made public may be tormented by their peers, sometimes to the point of suicide. Adult victims of revenge porn quit their jobs and change their names out of shame. Lena Chen suffered socially and academically when her photos were published without her consent as a student at Harvard. Then she attracted a stalker.
Celebrities aren't immune, either. A quick look at the online abuse sustained by any of the victims who tried to stick up for themselves — "Cunt," "This one should have stayed dressed," "You deserve this," etc. — shows the need for an impossibly thick skin. While some victims publicly brushed it off, others took it hard. "Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this," Winstead wrote on Twitter. After being harassed by people like @zaiger, whose taunt "I felt great after I came" has been deleted but was immortalized by The Verge’s T.C. Sottek, Winstead decided to drop off Twitter indefinitely. Scarlett Johansson cried in her taped testimony when her photos were leaked a few years ago by a hacker, telling the judge she was "truly humiliated and embarrassed."
As Amanda Hess writes at Slate, it’s unfair to ask the victims to "shrug it off." Having private information published is traumatic, no matter what it is, and downplaying the consequences excuses the thieves.
We’re in what I hope will turn out to be a temporary period in the evolution of technology, when common criminals have enough skills to defeat lax legacy security conventions. That balance will soon be reversed as companies realize they need to do more to protect their users, and users realize they need to do more to protect themselves — and as unfortunate as this attack is for the victims, it’s brought the issue into the national attention with a splash that can’t be ignored. So thanks, Jennifer Lawrence, for getting us to talk about it.