Over the past day, nude, risqué, and other private photos of several celebrities leaked online, the work of an as-of-yet unknown party or parties who obtained and released the images without permission of the subjects. While, through a spokeswoman, Emma Watson has disputed the authenticity of any nude images within the leak (claiming that any nude photos within the trove that are allegedly of her are a "hoax"), she has confirmed that genuine private photos of her have been posted online without her permission. Likewise, Amanda Seyfried's attorneys have already demanded that at least one website remove the images, some of which, Seyfried has acknowledged, contain explicit material.
Any unauthorized release of private photographs - especially of people undressed or engaged in intimate activities - is a serious crime and violation of privacy; I sympathize with the victims - and they are victims - and I sincerely hope that the perpetrators are identified, apprehended, and punished. Society often forgets that celebrities are people who suffer emotional pain no differently than anyone else.
There are, however, several important lessons that we can all learn from this episode:
1. Protect private material.
It is unclear as of yet how exactly the photos ended up on the Internet, but one thing is clear: they were not adequately protected. If you take nude photos or other images that you want to ensure stay private, you must take responsibility for protecting them. Do not store them in an insecure fashion or surrender control over them to anyone who may not adequately protect them. Understand that unlike financial fraud that can be undone to a great extent by reversing charges or repaying victims, once images leak on the Internet they will never again be private - for consumers, protecting these images is far more important that protecting a credit card number.
2. Store private material offline.
Consider storing extremely private materials in an encrypted format on a computer that is not connected to the Internet. And keep that machine in a secure, private place.
3. Keep private material out of the cloud.
On that note, think twice about storing such images in the cloud; many people store all of their images in the cloud through automatic backups. While it is true that major cloud providers offer better security than most people can implement at home, such providers also make good targets, because hackers know how to reach them, know that celebrities and businesses store valuable files there, and know that a single breach can yield a "hacking jackpot" of sensitive material from numerous parties. Also, remember, that if a cloud provider is breached, the security of your sensitive material may not be its highest priority. And consider the government: Edward Snowden has publicly states that NSA personnel would share nude images gathered by its online surveillance; regardless of whether that accusation is true, do you really believe that any American cloud provider will keep your materials from the NSA if it demands them or a court issues an order for them to be turned over? Remember, there is no "cloud" - it is simply other peoples' computers.
4. Encrypt private material.
Wherever you store private material, encrypt it. And, if you must store sensitive material in the cloud, encrypt it with your own tools in addition to those any offered by the cloud provider. (There may be providers where using the built-in tools alone is sufficient due to the way the encryption is implemented, but since most people do not understand enough about encryption to make that determination it is best to use your own tools on top of whatever the provider offers). Also, if you rely on encryption for protection, you need to make sure that you stay current: when an encryption mechanism is cracked or rendered ineffective by technological advances you need to make sure all copies of private data are re-encrypted.
5. Protect all relevant accounts.
Make sure to properly secure any accounts that have sensitive materials within them or accessible to them. Remember that any email account that is used for receiving password reset emails can potentially be used to gain access to any sensitive accounts that reset passwords via that address.
6. Protect yourself more than celebrities protect themselves.
You need to be more careful than celebrities when it comes to protecting your private information. The sad reality is that your own career is more likely to be hurt by the release of explicit photos than would be that of a professional entertainer. Also, despite any laws or rights to the contrary, it is obvious that law enforcement, major media outlets, technology vendors, and society in general treat the leakage of sensitive material belonging to celebrities far differently than they do breaches of other people's privacy. Consider the following: Hours after the celebrity nude photo leak in 2014, Twitter announced that it it would suspend accounts that share the celebrity nude photos; do you really think that if your private photos leaked you could get the same treatment within the same timeframe? Can you afford to hire the same caliber armies of lawyers that celebrities use to fight those who distribute stolen images? Can you get the attention of major technology vendors and media outlets within minutes of having your own data leaked? How quickly can you get the FBI to aggressively pursue a case?
7. Do not rely on security settings.
Do not share materials online that you do not wish to become public. Do not rely on security settings to protect material that "absolutely must never leak," as sites may have vulnerabilities, and hackers may successfully undermine their security settings.