There are naked pictures of me on this blog.
What can I say? I went through a brief, months-long phase in my late teens where I was at the edge of my early-college thinness, had a web cam, and thought I was some form of internet soft-core porn star. I was young, newly single, and attractive.
Even in my youthful pride and vanity, I understood the context of my actions. I knew that by posting the images to CK I was committing them to the collective consciousness, and that they would exist in perpetuity through my every job interview or public exposure. I was okay with that. It was my choice, which I own even if I may later regret it.
This weekend one of the biggest stories on the internet was that the private photographs of dozens of actresses had been hacked from Apple’s iCloud service and posted on the internet. These images were not taken to be committed to the collective consciousness, but for personal use. The only choice made was to take them – they may have even been deleted later, only to persist in the cloud. They weren’t carelessly misplaced or lost. They were stolen.
This is not only a theft, but a sex crime – which is to say, the criminal behind it intentionally and with harmful intent removed the sexual agency from these women. Yet, the general reception to the photos was not disgust or icy dismissal. Many people rejoiced in the chance to see these stars naked. In catching up on the story, I read one particularly disturbing comment from a woman who said she loaded the photos, handed her laptop to her husband, and said only, “You’re welcome.”
I suppose he was supposed to be thanking her for acting as an accessory to a disgusting crime she was now implicating him in as well? I’m not sure.
Let me state plainly that there are important issues of misogyny to unpack here. I’m not the writer most-qualified to contend with those topics, or even list them. I’ll simply point out that few if no men had their solo photographs leaked as part of this crime. It would be just as much as a theft and a sex crime if there had been, but the crime would be in a different context.
That’s the context I find myself mulling over, since I have the capacity to do so – the one we might be discussing if this had not been a sex crime solely against women. That is the idea of public versus private communication.
(No, not in the disgusting, victim-blaming, “don’t take the photos if you don’t want them to be seen” way that I’ve seen it happening so far. We can be surprised that stars might take these photos – I personally am – but let’s not pretend that the facts that a human is sexual and that a body can be naked in front of a camera entitles us to see the results.)
At work, I lead a session for new employees on Brand Voice. The prevailing theme is that when you represent a brand you should assume all of your communication is public-facing and brand-representing. There is no private. It doesn’t matter if it’s an internal email, a comment on an elevator, or a personal posting. If you can be construed as a representative of your brand, your comment counts! Once you fix that in your brain and use it as your global filter, your risk is greatly reduced. If something runs counter to your brand, you don’t say it or share it willfully.
Celebrities are certainly aware they are brands and in any potentially public-facing venue act accordingly. These women would never have committed these images to the public consciousness, as I chose to over a decade ago. They were all clearly private – just as I expect some of my colleagues might say something in the privacy of their home that would fall outside of my recommendations in the Brand Voice talk.
What defines private? In my colleagues’ case, it’s the knowledge of their surroundings and the assumption of security. They are in their living space with a known quantity of other people, presumably safe from being intruded upon, overheard, or recorded. That assumption could be in error – someone could knock down the door at any second! But, they have a reasonable, evidence-based expectation that they are secure.
What defined private for the victims in this case? They, too, were in secure spaces. They, too, did not think they would be seen by anything other than their own camera and their intended recipient. However, once these digital photos were allowed to sync to the cloud, a whole new set of assumptions came into play.
Do you know what it means when you commit a photo to iCloud, use DropBox, divulge a personal detail on a social network, or even speculatively place something into your shopping cart in the same browser session where you have been logged in to any website, anywhere? I suspect you don’t. You assume what you are doing is private because you want it to be, and because there are some measures in place to maintain that illusion of limited access. You don’t understand the whole chain of custody of your information and how it will be used.
You may not realize the website you visited knows which ads you clicked and what you did afterward, though you would surely object to someone following you through a grocery store, taking notes. You don’t know what server your private Facebook message sits on, or what prevents it from going to another user, yet you are likely as confident (or moreso!) in the privacy of that communication than you are that a letter will reach its intended recipient unmolested. In fact, it is the digital thing is so much more fragile and corruptible.
If this sounds like it’s turning into, “So don’t take a naked digital picture ever!” it’s not. Again, just because a naked photo exists doesn’t mean everyone should be allowed to see it, just as because a woman has a body does not mean every one has the right to comment on it.
It is, “Why do we trust who we trust?” When someone tells us, “your data is private and secure,” do we understand what those words mean? Private unless what? Secure until when? My clients frequently request documentation or NDAs to confirm that statement, but it turns out the most famous people in the world just click “I Accept” on the iCloud user agreement like the rest of us and go on with their lives.
They trust just like we do. They think private means the same thing we do. The violation they are experiencing is the same one we sign up for every time we click that “I Accept” button. We’re all the same, except more people recognize their faces.
If I suddenly became famous tomorrow – joined a reality TV show, or released a hit song, or ran for public office – all of the content on this blog would become fodder for both my fans and foes. Hundreds of details about my actions and beliefs. Indecent photos. Terrible demo songs. That was my choice.
What happened to the victims of this situation wasn’t a choice. It isn’t fair or just. It’s terrible, it’s a crime, and it can never be erased. Famous or not, woman or man, no one deserves to lose their sexual agency or to be treated like an object.
And it’s all because one criminal decided he wanted to change the meaning of the word “private.”