Our Opinion: The presumption of privacy


In the past two decades since the rise of the Internet (and, in turn, our new, online world), people have operated with a presumption of privacy.

From e-mails to pictures to social media accounts, people have written, photographed and opined on a myriad of subject matter and later tucked it away with a presumption it was forever hidden from prying eyes.

Well, as we've also learned over the past 20 years, in today's digital world nothing is ever as safe and secure as you'd led yourself to believe. People can and do read your private e-mails. Your bank card pin numbers can be compromised. Someone most likely is listening to your cell phone conversation. Those nude pictures you tucked away "on the cloud" for safe keeping, they aren't so safe.

Plenty of Hollywood celebrities -- mostly the young, female, beautiful, popular ones -- learned that last lesson in particularly hard fashion this past weekend when a massive hack -- which Apple deemed "a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions" -- lead to the online release of hundreds of intimate images. (The images in question were obtained via Apple's iCloud system(s).)

And what's more sad than this obvious invasion of privacy is the fact it was greeted with, for the most part, a collective shrug by the public at large due to the fact that, in this day and age, many a so-called celebrity has used the ruse of "leaked photos and/or sex tapes" as a means to garner more attention to bolster their image, build interest in an upcoming album/TV show/movie, or draw attention to some other pet project. What that says about them and the society that rewards such behavior is a topic for another editorial.

However, as the facts become clearer and more lawyers and FBI agents become involved, it's apparent this was not just some calculated publicity stunt.

"There are a lot of theories about how this could have occurred," reports Business Insider, "but one of the most prominent suggests multiple hackers spent months getting into the seemingly secure accounts, either because they were hired to steal the photos or so they could trade the images for other things online, like more nude photos or bitcoin."

In the Internet's infancy, this presumption of online privacy surely was questioned, but like any new, technological advancement, as the public-at-large became more accustomed to and comfortable with their digital lives, most grew complacent. Like a house fire; or an accident while drinking and driving ... or texting while driving, for that matter -- when you haven't had the first-hand experience the response is almost always the same: "Oh, that couldn't happen to me."

"The Internet," writes Alexandra Petri, for The Washington Post, "is where we keep our stuff. Good, bad, and neutral -- it's all there somewhere, either shared with friends or kept between ourselves and our closest Facebook advertisers and dearest data harvesters. It's where we keep our lists of ideas, our pictures, our music libraries. It's a living room, a library, a complete rogues' gallery of everyone we've ever met that we can access from our pants-pockets, sometimes by mistake."

As Petri posits, when looking at this latest celebrity hacking scandal, "This whole story ... is -- yes, certainly a story about privacy, celebrity, consent and the security of online accounts ... but it is just as much about what it's like to grow up on the Internet. ... The complete list is telling, because with a few exceptions, they are all female and young enough to have come of age online."

And having come of age online, perhaps some should have known there was a chance, however slim, that this online security wasn't quite so secure. And that fact, in no way, demeans the nature of the "attack" perpetrated on these individuals. As Slate staff writer Amanda Hess puts it: "The act is the digital equivalent of approaching a woman on the street, pulling down her shirt, snapping a photo, and passing it around."

And I think we all can agree that is wrong.

"We have this abstract belief that privacy is important, but the way we behave online often runs counter to that," Nicholas Carr told the Associated Press. Carr, who has written extensively about the Internet (including the 2010 book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains"), says he would "hope people would understand that anything you do online could be made public. ... Yet there's this illusion of security that tempers any nervousness ... It's hard to judge risks when presented with the opportunity to do something fun."

While looking for a silver lining trivializes this latest invasion of online privacy, it does accomplish two things. First and foremost, it's a reminder to everyone that when it comes to the Internet, nothing is ever as truly secure as it seems.

But, more importantly, it's the latest wake-up call for authorities to better prosecute those who circumvent those security measures. As Hess states: "Not all women have the clout to put tech companies and law enforcement agencies on notice when they are victimized online, but they should, and high-profile incidents like this one can help secure legal recourse for lesser-known victims down the line."

And there is hope.

In 2012, the man convicted of hacking into several accounts several years ago and distributing nude photographs of Scarlett Johansson and Mila Kunis was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Following that case, as well as one in which TV personality Erin Andrews was photographed through a peephole in her hotel room (those photographs later appeared online), California last year became one of the first states to explicitly criminalize revenge porn. (For those not in the know, revenge porn is defined as sexual explicit media which is distributed online, without the consent of the pictured individual, for the purpose of humiliation). To date, 12 others have followed suit (though unfortunately, none in New England).

We think this is a good opportunity to call on our state and regional leaders to learn from these exploitations, and to craft similar legal guidelines. This was the latest, but certainly not the last time, such a data breach will occur. With stiffer penalties in place, perhaps it will make others think twice before they try to crack through digital safeguards in place to keep our personal information ... well, personal.

Sure, that may not solve the problem, but at least we'll have the comfort in knowing there's some form of justice in store for those who choose to violate that privacy.


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