Photo-hacking scandal should spark new discussion on Internet privacy

Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton are feeling exposed. Nude pictures of both suddenly popped up on Internet sites, provoking concern throughout Hollywood about who might be next. But it’s not only celebrities who should worry; it’s all of us. And it’s not only scandalous pictures we should fear. There’s other stuff – less salacious but just as violative – that can become the target of hackers and harassers.

The actor and the model were just two of several well-known personalities who reportedly had nude images of themselves splashed everywhere. The photos were allegedly kept in an Apple cloud server, and some first speculated there was a security flaw in the company’s systems. Apple denies that, saying the hack was far more commonplace. In all likelihood, someone targeted the celebrities’ individual accounts, changing their passwords to gain access.

Granted, the hacking of Web accounts isn’t anything new. Something similar happened to Sarah Palin in 2008 just after she was named John McCain’s running mate. What is new, however, is that in the elapsed six years the cloud has become an ever more dominant part of our lives. With our devices now permanently connected to the Internet, it’s easy – and sometimes the default – for all of our information, images, and videos to be stored remotely.

Some have argued it’s the celebs’ fault for taking naked pictures in the first place. That’s a critique that applies to many. Lovers and sometimes friends often take and share intimate photos with each other – and frequently regret it when, upon a breakup, they see those same images posted to a“revenge” site.

But that amounts to little more than blaming the victim. The whole idea behind privacy rights is that – famous or not – everything you do isn’t properly grist for public consumption. Nor are you off the hook if you haven’t posed nude. Buy something with a credit card or online, and there’s likely to be an electronic record of it. That may not matter when your purchase was a tube of toothpaste; it may matter more if it’s a box of condoms. Similarly, as medical records are increasingly stored in the cloud, the potential for the exposure of embarrassing information grows ever greater.

So what are we to do?

Some might seek to reverse the sands of time, going back to the good ol' days – say, the mid 1990s – when everything digital was kept on an unconnected desktop computer. But that’s not going to happen, and for good reason: There’s too much good that comes from connected life to ever want to do away with it.

So the advice we get is to further strengthen protections against hacking. The litany is well-known: more complicated passwords, stronger malware defenses, improved encryption, better server security. Ultimately, though, a determined or clever enough hacker will find a way through. Indeed, much of the world of technology seems to involve fixing one hole even as new ones are being discovered. And, of course, making things too difficult undermines the openness and ease-of-use of the Internet itself.

Another approach is to treat such invasions as a criminal matter – which they sometimes are – and increase both penalties and enforcement.

When it comes to cybertheft, the last few years have seen stepped up federal activity. Credit card thief Albert Gonzalez got 20 years in 2010. Earlier this year, another thief, Luis Flores, was jailed for three-and-a-half years. Sometimes, as evidenced by the Aaron Swartz case, prosecutors can overreach, but, in general, stronger laws and more aggressive prosecution has been welcomed.

The same should apply to malicious invasions of privacy. Incredibly (and truly, almost unbelievably), one art gallery now says it plans to exhibit Lawrence and Upton’s stolen photos – as if, once stolen, they are no longer personal property. The laws need to change. The unwanted release of nude photos should be regarded as a sex crime. The theft of personal information should be regarded the same as breaking and entering. Posting to revenge sites – illegal in only 13 states – should be banned nationwide.

Granted, invasions of privacy aren’t the same as physical assault. But the psychological effects and impact on one’s life can be just as damaging. The celebrity hurt today could easily be you tomorrow.