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Keeping information on the cloud does not keep it safe

Many celebrities recently experienced the limitations of cybersecurity firsthand when their personal accounts were hacked and photographs disseminated throughout the internet.

Photo by George Thomas (Flickr)

In late August 2014, around 100 female celebrities had their personal iCloud accounts hacked into, resulting in the release of hundreds of photos, including nude selfies.  Now, iPhone owners are questioning Apple’s security protocol and looking for someone to blame.

Cloud computing has grown significantly over the past few years, allowing users to store their personal documents, photos, and videos on a remote server.  If a user’s personal computer or smartphone is ever destroyed, the saved items are still available to them.  Apple’s version, iCloud, can be backed up from any Apple device periodically to ensure that data is not lost.  Generally, only a single password is required to access iCloud, but a stronger security option also exists that requires two-step verification.

It is not yet clear how this break-in was accomplished, but Apple has claimed that it is not liable for the breach.

Apple has publicly stated that the iCloud breach was not the fault of lax security, but rather the result of a hacker obtaining personal login information for the celebrities.  It is not yet clear how this break-in was accomplished, but Apple has claimed that it is not liable for the breach.  If that is the case, then the exposed celebrities will not be able to successfully sue the tech company.

To the relief of many teenage boys, those who view the photos will not face charges.  First, the government does not have the resources to go after all those who viewed the photographs.  Also, there is generally no liability for viewing a photo of an adult celebrity on the Internet.  Regardless, the government has much bigger fish to fry – namely the person responsible for the leak.

Websites that share the photos may also be able to avoid liability.  The Safe Harbor clause in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows a website posting copyrighted material an opportunity to remove the material after receiving notice from the offended party.  If a person takes a photograph of himself or herself, they hold the copyright to the photo.  Jennifer Lawrence’s attorney has threatened to sue anyone who shares the photos of the nude celebrity.  In a world where photos go viral within minutes of the initial release, it is unrealistic to think that a celebrity’s attorney could possibly contact every single website that the photo appears on.  Lawrence’s attorney would exhaust himself attempting to scour the internet for every copy of the nude selfies, so the selfies shall be forever imprinted on the internet.

Some doubt whether Lawrence took the photographs herself, and giving question to the true owner of the copyrighted photographs.  If someone else took the photo, Lawrence could not claim that she holds the copyright and any demands to remove the photos may not hold water.

If any websites continued to display the photos of Maroney and Lee, those sites could guilty of distributing child pornography, a federal offense.

However, some websites could be liable for posting child pornography.  American Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney claims that the published nude photos of her were taken when she was underage.  MTV starlet Liz Lee also claims she was underage when her then-boyfriend photographed her nude.  Websites such as Reddit rushed to remove the photos of Maroney and Lee after receiving word that the photos could be considered child pornography.  If any websites continued to display the photos of Maroney and Lee, those sites could guilty of distributing child pornography, a federal offense.

On the other hand, Maroney herself could be liable for possessing child pornography.  If Maroney stored photos of herself nude on her phone or computer, she could be found to have had possession of child pornography.  Although many people find it difficult to believe that a teenage girl could be prosecuted for possessing photos of herself naked, some jurisdictions are willing to prosecute minors for possession and distribution of child pornography for possessing pictures of themselves.  However, prosecutors in most jurisdictions will choose not to press charges if sexual assault or exploitation did not occur, chalking the activity up to teens simply being teens.  In fact, in a separate incident in Pennsylvania where Wyoming County District Attorney George P. Skumanick threatened to file child pornography charges against a teenage girl who took a partially nude photograph of herself, The Pennsylvania Court of Appeals upheld an injunction forbidding Skumanick from prosecuting the teenager.  It is not known whether charges will be brought against Maroney, although it is highly unlikely the government would pursue such an action.

The FBI has no qualms about prosecuting those who commit such crimes against celebrities.

At this point, it is not publicly known who is responsible for the hack.  Fingers have been pointed at hacking groups and online forums such as 4chan, but there are no firm details.  Multiple media outlets have reported that the FBI is chasing someone, yet that person’s identity and nationality have not been released.  If and when the person or persons responsible for the hack are found, a plethora of charges will likely be filed, including, but not limited to: copyright infringement, misappropriation, trespass, and possession and distribution of child pornography.

The FBI has no qualms about prosecuting those who commit such crimes against celebrities.  In 2012, hacker Christopher Chaney was handed a ten-year sentence in federal prison after being convicted of wiretapping and hacking into private email accounts.  His primary targets consisted of celebrities, including Christina Aguilera, Scarlett Johansson, and Mila Kunis.  He also hacked into the email accounts of two women he knew personally.  Chaney gained access by guessing the answers to the victims’ security questions, and then used contact lists to learn the email addresses of more celebrities.  In all, he hacked over fifty people, and sent many of the nude photos he found to online gossip blogs.

The celebrities harmed by the recent hack are unlikely to recover monetary damages once the perpetrator is caught.  Although some might attempt to sue for punitive damages, intentional infliction of emotional distress, copyright infringement, or invasion of privacy, there is a slim chance that they will receive actual cash in the end.  They may have a strong case, but the hacker will probably exhaust his financial resources on his defense in federal court.

Hackers likely have no desire to find the nude selfies of just anyone, personal data could still be hacked for other purposes.

Should the average Joe worry about his personal online security?  Absolutely.  First, avoid downloading any of the leaked photographs.  Anything suspicious online carries the risk of having malware attached to it, which could destroy not only your computer, but could steal your personal information.  Furthermore, be aware of what permissions smartphone apps ask for, including access to your browser history and contact list.  Many of these permissions can be accessed and adjusted via Settings on an iPhone.

Additionally, although hackers likely have no desire to find the nude selfies of just anyone, personal data could still be hacked for other purposes, such as stealing one’s identity.  Apple advises enabling two-step verification on all iCloud accounts, and has said that it will continue to strengthen its security features by implanting a text alert system for suspicious activity.  Ultimately, to avoid the trouble and embarrassment, it might simply be best to keep your nude photographs out of your email and off of the cloud.

Paige Miles Feldmann, Managing Editor
About Paige Miles Feldmann, Managing Editor (20 Articles)
Paige Miles Feldmann is a 2016 graduate and served as the Managing Editor of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, she graduated from Penn State with a finance degree. Following her first year of law school, she interned with the Clerk of Superior Court for Chatham County, the Wake County Family Court, and the Wake County Public Defender. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition. Paige worked with the Wake County District Attorney as an intern in the misdemeanor section during her third year.
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