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On the internet, disaster is always one step ahead of you

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Why we aren't done writing about celebrity nudes

On Wednesday, following a flood of commentary on the theft of celebrities’ nude photos, some corners of the web announced they’d had enough. John Herrman, writing in The Awl, ridiculed the surge in punditry as a cynical grab for page views. "A phenomenon like this generates an enormous surplus of attention, much more than news can meet," he wrote. "This throws the ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ industry into a frantic generative mode, initiating a full-spectrum stress test on par with a natural disaster or a war." Alex Pareene, following up on Andrew Sullivan’s site, suggested most of these Celebgate "takes" were "produced solely in the hopes that the post will, through luck and a bit of dark magic, win the Facebook algorithm lottery," and "are the most depressing pieces of writing on the web, for the reader and the writer."

It’s true that generally we suffer from too much commentary chasing too little journalism. But Celebgate strikes me as precisely the wrong test case for this notion, because the leaked photos are the rare bit of celebrity news that has real consequences for the rest of us. The theft of the photos has several dimensions, all of them awful. There are the victims themselves, who have been subject to ridicule and abuse in the short term and could see damage to their careers in the long term. There are the criminals who stole and traded their targets’ information, drawing attention to apparently vast networks of disgruntled ex-boyfriends working to unearth the nudes of their own non-famous partners. There are the Redditors who collected all the nudes, which appear to have included child pornography, onto a forum called The Fappening, where they could be consumed and commented upon in a spirit of callous bonhomie.

The theft of the photos has several dimensions, all of them awful

There is Apple and its wayward iCloud, always a few steps short of living up to its promise, revealed here as a service that could be penetrated with distressingly trivial methods that almost anyone could learn in a day or two. There are other cloud services, yet to be implicated in this attack, that are likely cracked as easily. And above all there is the inescapable sense that when it comes to your data, disaster is always one step ahead of you. From the theft of 40 million credit cards at Target, to the Heartbleed bug that enabled the easy hacking of half a million "secure" web servers, to the two-factor authentication system that (turns out!) won’t help you in a case like this, the question isn’t if your data will be stolen but when. And the corporations you’ve entrusted with your data, well, They Take Your Security Very Seriously, though naturally the terms of service deny you any legal recourse. Best of luck explaining all those stolen sexts to your future employers.

Now for the good news

You have to look hard to see a silver lining in all this, but let’s try. For the most part, commentary around the photos’ publication has avoided blaming the victims, and brought attention to how widespread the practice of sexting has become. Compare that to the much less sympathetic reaction Scarlett Johansson got in 2011 after her own nude photos were stolen, when mainstream sites like Buzzfeed posted the images, and much of the discussion centered on why anyone would ever take a nude photo. That change is good, because it means that over time the consequences for having your own nude photos made public are likely to become less dire. You’ll still be embarrassed, of course, but you won’t be denied admission to college or lose out on a job opportunity.

The increasing ubiquity of sexting also seems likely to lead companies like Apple and Google to build new privacy features into their smartphones at the system level. Dan Kaminsky writes convincingly about the likelihood that operating systems will eventually come to distinguish between normal photos and "sensitive" ones, preventing the latter from being automatically backed up to the cloud or otherwise shared without the user’s express consent.

Privacy features at the system level

Meanwhile, the breach has already pushed tech companies to improve security practices. iCloud passwords are too easy to reset; security questions are too easy to guess; and even if you’ve signed up for Apple’s two-factor authentication, it doesn’t verify your identity when your data is downloaded to a new device. Last night, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced plans to change some of that — you’ll now get emails and push notifications when someone tries to change your account password, or when you restore an iCloud backup to a new device. That ought to help, at least for a little while.

What next?

We place our hopes in technology companies to address these problems because we have no hope for the people who steal our photos. Reading the ugly things voyeurs tweeted at the celebrity victims, or scrolling through the forum posts on 4Chan or Anon-IB, empathy fails me. Who are these people? Misogynists are nothing new, but their methods are, and they’re evolving faster than than we can keep up. The result is a place like the Fappening, which hosted a crime scene and then organized a circle jerk around it.

This I can’t fathom, or maybe just don’t want to. The more we try to explain it, the more unsettling it all feels, which is why all the media takes on Celebgate keep coming. There are no answers, only the boundless resourcefulness of hackers, the ongoing failure of their decency, and the perpetual fear that the next hack is going to be the one that leaves us screwed. Oscar Wilde said that everything in the world is about sex except sex, which is about power. Celebgate is a story about how much of that power now belongs to the wrong people, and about how no one really knows how to win it back.