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    Photo leaks and privacy threats — not just for celebrities any more

     Actress Jennifer Lawrence, seen at the Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 party in Cannes, France, was among the celebrities whose private images were stolen and distributed online. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

    Actress Jennifer Lawrence, seen at the Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 party in Cannes, France, was among the celebrities whose private images were stolen and distributed online. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

    The celebrity nude photo leak in August raised some uncomfortable questions about the security of private data — and about what, if anything, we can do about it. Being threatened online is pretty appalling — and scary. I should know: It’s happened to me.

    The celebrity nude photo leak in August raised some uncomfortable questions about the security of private data on cloud computing services — and about what, if anything, we can do about it.

    Basically, some nasty Internet personalities took it upon themselves to post nearly 200 private photos of celebrities on image-sharing site 4Chan. A collection of the images was uploaded to another site, Reddit, an act that became known in basement-dwelling circles as “The Fappening.” (If you’re confused by that particular term, you should know that “fapping” is Internet lingo for furious masturbation.) Reddit is an Internet message board with portals for topics and subtopics ranging from fad diets to local news to pornography.

    Whew. So, now that we’ve gotten that little “Internet for People with Antisocial Personality Disorder” tutorial out of the way, what is all this hubbub is about?

    Privacy and dignity

    The problem with The Fappening, and the original leak on 4Chan, isn’t just that it’s a collection of sexy-time photos — it’s that they were obtained illegally by people who intruded on the privacy and dignity of dozens of human beings. Most of America’s intellectual elite were on record as outraged. But a few people laughed, and some even targeted critics of the obscenity with threats and harassment. This type of puerile Internet tough-guy-ism isn’t just an affront to common decency, however: Aspects of it are outright illegal.

    While the world has reached a consensus that these types of intrusions are terrible, we still don’t seem to know what we even do about it. Moreover, we seem unable to satisfactorily prepare: Does it mean to never take nude pics of ourselves? Does it mean some program we buy through an online retailer? Should we pass new laws?

    Such questions are relevant, because these breaches are sure to occur again. And again. And again and again and again. The Internet is a dog that can bite back. It can provide untold joy, but on the wrong day, it might just break your skin.

    To make matters worse, when this started to blow over, anti-feminist users on 4Chan cryptically threatened to release nude images of UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, because — why not? After all, when you’re all-in on projecting your misery onto others, you might as well double down by adding new targets. It turned out to be a ploy. Still, it garnered opprobrium similar to that of the original photo leak.

    These types of threats are too common. And we can see that sometimes they come to fruition. Being blackmailed or threatened online is pretty appalling — and scary.

    I should know: It’s happened to me.

    Rising above the trolls and ‘tough guys’

    See, I’m a drug addict in recovery who spent years in active addiction. When I got clean and began writing, fellow addicts, many I once used with and others still using, hurled untold vitriol at me. Along with the garden-variety Internet nonsense that comes with a public career, there was a darker component to my experience that occasionally persists.

    I regularly receive threatening emails, and comments on a lot of my work are riddled with ramblings from a couple of people who clearly need to get help. As recently as last month, someone “anonymously” emailed me, threatening to disseminate pictures of me in compromising positions. At first, it was hurtful because, well … there are likely pictures of me in compromising positions somewhere on the Internet!

    The person who hurt my feelings was not the one threatening me, though; it was my past self who got me into those stupid situations in the first place. While you’re using intravenous drugs and making your living in the so-called “street economy,” you know deep down that you have no future. So, you don’t care about pictures taken during sex acts; you don’t care that your associate might take a picture of you using drugs.

    After I felt that brief pang of self-focused shame, I immediately let go of it. I moved on about my day and then wondered why anyone would even care — particularly because the only folks obsessed with my doom wallow in small-minded misery, presumably irate that I continue to breathe.

    Yet, those people whose pictures were disseminated by hackers on 4Chan and Reddit, they weren’t nearly as careless or ethically questionable as I once was. Their pictures were taken for their own use, to share with their intimates. That didn’t matter, though. Their judiciousness and caution was an illusion in this digital age. And the humanity of the victims — for they are truly victims — didn’t matter to anyone who spread those photos, either.

    Yes, each woman exposed in the nude photo leak is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend, someone’s spouse or lover. But that didn’t matter to a few nasty people on the Internet, and it will likely never matter to the spiritually sick or emotionally dead. Happy people don’t do these things.

    Is it private? Don’t upload it.

    So, if you really want to keep something private, don’t ever digitize it. I wish there was some greater comfort, but from where I stand, that’s really all you can do. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. And, no matter what we do security-wise, where there is a perverse will, there is certainly a way.

    Leave the legal questions to law enforcement, because clearly, it doesn’t matter — big or small, well-known or obscure — if you can be hurt online, somebody’s going to try to hurt you. Even with Pennsylvania’s statute banning revenge porn — which is essentially what you hope your ex never does — it still could happen. In fact, I’m sure it will for some of you (or me).

    If you are victimized, what should you do? How should we as a society respond? We shouldn’t be ambivalent, we should all try to collectively rise above, and if you ask me, the best thing is to go about our days, rolling our eyes and shrugging. It still hurts, and that’s OK. Sometimes, the best we can do is feel emotions. It holds us apart from the pathetic wretches trying to bring us down with them.

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