Here Be Dragons

Don't Blame Shitty Technology For the Fappening

No level of internet security would stop people being sexist creeps.

by Martin Robbins
03 September 2014, 3:00pm

One of the many memes created that show the Fappening is a problem of sexist attitudes as much as of technology.

People love to blame technology. Many have assumed that this week's big technology news – the mass theft of nude photos from celebrities’ Apple accounts – is down to a failure in their iCloud service, and some analysts have pointed to law enforcement software (available to anyone) that could have done the job. Apple’s latest statement appears to contradict that, suggesting that no systems were breached but that this was a “very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions”. In truth we don’t know yet, but it speaks to a bigger truth. You can have the strongest security technology in the history of everything, but it’s worth jack shit if somebody has the key.

So let’s forget technology for a moment and think about people. It’s not surprising that Apple "hackers" have targeted celebrities – Apple itself targets celebrities. 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman posted an in-depth study of their “mastery of the media” the other day, concluding that the company was “like a teenage girl obsessively keeping her fingers on the pulse of coverage.” Like most teenage girls, Apple are obsessed with celebs. “Members of Apple PR seek tabloid photos of celebrities holding iPhones,” as well as making sure their latest toys end up in their hands in the first place. Apple is a high status brand, and they court high status people.

Trouble is, fame is really shit for security. In fact it’s amazing how much security relies on the assumption that other people don’t know anything much about you. Security questions your bank might ask you, like “what was your first pet?” or “what make of car do you drive” or “what’s your date of birth” are fine for the average Jane or John Doe because strangers aren’t likely to know. For people who live their lives in public, that kind of personal information could be just a Google away.

To make things worse, famous people are more likely to be a target in the first place. Thanks to all that Apple PR, the public photos, the brand endorsements, it wouldn’t take a lot of detective work to establish which celebs have iCloud accounts and guess the email addresses they use. And if there’s one thing we know about communities of misogynists on the Internet, it’s that they’re obsessive types with a vast amount of free time on their hands.

Sure, if naked photos of me ended up on Perez Hilton’s blog I’d be pissed off. I imagine his readers would be pissed off too. The first words out of my mouth would be, “Fuck you Apple!” followed by something like “I have hair there?!” It’s easy to blame technology because technology is difficult to understand, and it’s easy to blame Apple because they make a convenient corporate villain. But the truth is, this is a human problem as much as a technological one.

We have a completely fucked up relationship with celebrities. The FBI are investigating this theft of private photographs, yet it’s perfectly OK for paparazzi photographers to lie on pavements taking pictures up women’s skirts, to engage in dangerous car chases, to terrorise small children and relentlessly stalk women down dark allies.

Even the phone hacking scandal only really kicked off when people found that "innocent civilians" like the Dowler family were involved. Nobody gave a damn about the celebrities involved, because celebrities aren’t really regarded as people by our society. They’re absurd pantomime figures, semi-fictional characters who exist only for our entertainment. We think we own them, and when we find we don’t, we seek ways to exert control, to bring them back into line. We hate them and we love them. They represent everything that we think we want; and we resent them for that even as we wank over their images.

That’s bad enough, but dehumanisation never stops with one group. Once people learn to see one group as less than human, it becomes easier and easier to apply the same logic to others. We saw this process play out in the phone hacking scandal. The more comfortable tabloids became with the crime, the more they expanded the scope of it. "Celebrities" became "Z-listers" became "people in the news" became "people related to people in the news" until the logic of it all grew so fuzzy that anyone was a legitimate target.

The entertainment industry has taught us a huge amount about abuse and misogyny. Because of the entertainment industry, we know that it’s fine to beat your girlfriend to a bloody mess and then resume your lucrative music career as if nothing had happened. We know that paedophilia isn’t really a crime as long as you make good films. We know that models exist to be molested and assaulted by photographers who will continue to get away with it because it’s something that’s just accepted. If any other industry killed and abused women, children and young men at the same rate, there’d be a huge public inquiry.

This isn’t just tolerated, it’s actively encouraged. Even as news organisations condemn this theft of photographs, they print the stories under pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and others, with their names prominently featured in headlines. Thanks to the publicity media outlets have provided, thousands more people have seen these pictures. The message from the media couldn’t be clearer. These women are our property. They exist to drive our traffic and revenue. Their consent is irrelevant. There’s no concept of morality or sympathy here, just the lascivious pursuit of gory detail and tits by a mob. For all the faux-outrage, much of the media are on the same ground as the hackers, running in the same direction.

As Helen Lewis points out in New Statesman today, that message will inevitably filter into wider society. “Tell me that young women aren’t supposed to look at the harassment of [Anita] Sarkeesian for being a public figure and get the message: 'This could happen to you, you uppity bitch. Watch your mouth.' The leaking of the celebrity nude photos has the same impetus as revenge porn… Any expression of women’s sexuality moves them into Camp Slut, where they are fair game for punishment and humiliation."

Sure enough, the publicity around this theft has triggered another wave of account hijacking attempts, these ones aimed at "normal" people. It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find forums in which "hackers" post ads saying "give me an iCloud email address and a password and I’ll see what’s there." Obviously many of these people are just trying to harvest more accounts, but no doubt a few idiots will fall for it – spotty teenage pricks trying to find nude pictures on their girlfriends’ accounts, or abusers looking to humiliate or expose their partners or children.

The reality is, no amount of technology will save these people. We can make it harder, we can put safeguards in place, but the security of the cloud is as much a social problem as it is a technological problem. And right now, our society is looking pretty fucked up.

@mjrobbins

Previously: I Am Now Official a Transphobic Twitter Troll