It is, for better or for worse, the biggest news of the day: a massive hacking scandal involving photos of some of today’s top celebrities, spread out like a forest fire over the internet, provoking outrage, titillation, and, potentially, a re-evaluation of the way we look at our mobile technology. How people respond to this scandal will tell us a lot about where we are going.
First, the facts: in some dark corners of the internet, in nooks at reddit and 4chan, there has been a cache of photos stolen from the private communication devices of famous actresses, such as Jennifer Lawrence, and one semi-famous baseball player who happens to be dating Kate Upton. These photos were partially uploaded on Sunday, and have since taken the world by storm. (All links here are Safe For Work explainers). Among the questions this raises are: Does this matter? Are any of us safe? And, if we aren’t, if no one is, does that weirdly make it ok?
On the matter of celebrities
It’s a fact of the internet that even the articles most scornful of the leaks have clickbait headlines. There’s a reason everyone is so excited about this, and because of the role of celebrity in our nation and world, there is also an immediate backlash. Why are we making such a big deal about this? After all, the world is rocked by war and threatened by disease and made sick by raw barbarism: why does this get such huge headlines?
Well, for one thing, is is genuinely shocking and depraved. These photos were taken in a private manner, and stolen. It doesn’t matter if they are celebrities and as a culture we have decided that anyone is fair game. This should make us reconsider that already palpably idiotic nonsense (“Hey, if they didn’t want to have their lives trashed, they shouldn’t have tried to express themselves artistically for our entertainment!”). It is, plain and simple, an assault on their dignity and personhood. But it goes a lot deeper than that.
It does so for the reason that privacy ultimately matters, and what privacy advocates mention all the time: you have a right to decide what is public. Many people feel okay about broadcasting 99% of the thoughts that run through their heads, including 100% of their meals. But that doesn’t mean the 1% they choose not to share is fair game. Just because someone has decided to be an actress and show themselves doesn’t mean that anonymous hackers can decide what else should be shown, what private moments broadcast, what vulnerabilities exploited.
That’s what privacy means, and what security means – the right to choose. It isn’t about hiding anything, and those who break into the iCloud are not pirates or dashing heroes: they are no better than the overwhelming security agencies they would surely declaim. They are making decisions for others.
If them, then us?
There is also a slight disconnect between what happens with the rich and famous and what happens with poor schlubs like us. After all, no one is clamoring for pictures of me. And very few people’s leaked photos would garner any money for the hacker, much less any attention, thankfully. That isn’t the point, though. The point is that anyone who chooses to live a life online – that is, all of us – is vulnerable to people who arrogate unto themselves the right to make decisions for them.
It is a moral issue, and a security one. Apple is beginning to face major questions about its privacy ideas and its security standards (the two go hand-in-hand). Coming barely a week before its big iPhone 6 and wearable tech showcase, it is receiving some furiously bad publicity which it will have to address. After all, wearable tech means an even easier way to broadcast our lives online. Would I want people to know my heartrate? A simple syllogism about privacy: you may want to know the results of Kate Upton’s workout, but you probably wouldn’t want her to know yours, and so, where do you get the right to demand the former?
But does this mean we’ll unplug?
The ramifications for Silicon Valley
Going away from the obvious factors mitigating the aftershock of this scandal – our strange ideas about celebrity rights, the odds of it happening to any of us, a short attention span – this won’t cause anyone to really move away from tech. It isn’t just that we’re so used to it, but that it has still greatly improved our lives and is on the verge of changing the way we do everything. No one is backing away. (Update: Apple this evening said that as a result of its investigation, it has determined that the iCloud was not breached, but the general point – and the perception – still remains.)
What it might do is change the way we view mobile tech and privacy. People might demand that Apple not automatically upload every photo you take into the cloud: it’s your right to decide. People might demand that apps not send information to dozens of central banks or they’ll refuse to purchase.
This is exciting, in a way. Mobile technology has so completely taken over our lives that it is easy to forget just how new it is, and how early we are in the ballgame. The ideas of what we do and don’t allow are still forming, and they seem to be coalescing slowly toward the direction of privacy. It might be the opposite; we may decide that everything is game, and none of us care anymore. If that is the case, then privacy doesn’t matter.
But that probably won’t be the case. We’re seeing consumers begin to pressure the tech giants, and they will listen. The market is too wild and there are, in reality, too many competitors for even a seemingly unbeatable giant to ignore consumer demand. It is a shame that this disgusting attack on women is what it might take to bring out the demand for more privacy, but it is a small comfort that something good could potentially come out of it. Remember, the tech revolution is ours. We can demand from it what we want.