What's The Deal With All These Photo Leaks and How Does It Affect Me?

October 27th 2014

Julian Ramis

Approximately 90,000 photos and 9,000 videos were leaked in the form of a massive 13.6 GB file that was then posted on viralpop.com, a site created exclusively to host the cache of personal photos. Much like its namesake, “The Fappening” (which claimed a variety of celebrities as victims) and “the Snappening” (the Snapchat equivalent of photo hacks), these leaks have raised serious concerns regarding personal privacy and corporations’ ability to protect private information. 

At the same time, these leaks have also raised important moral questions surrounding human sexuality and social media. A great deal of “The Fappening” coverage was focused on the moral dimension of the issue. Is there anything wrong with taking nude selfies? Are you a bad person if you took the time to download sexually explicit photos of your friends or you're favorite celebrities? 

These questions are undoubtedly worth asking, but to focus on them exclusively while disregarding the technical side of what happened is to miss the big picture. 

Most Americans are completely lacking in digital literacy.

First, it's important to differentiate between digital literacy and coding ability. There's no doubt that the future of the American economy will rely on an expanding supply of programmers and software engineers, all of whom will be well versed in the various coding languages that lie behind the sleek exteriors of most public domains, including this one. 

According to the White House initiative US2020, there will be 1.2 million new jobs in science, technology, engineering and math by 2018, but what we're talking about here is much more basic. 

Digital literacy refers to a fundamental understanding of how technology and software operate. It means knowing that 'the cloud' refers to large groups of remote servers that allow for the centralized storage of data (In a telling 2012 study conducted by the cloud company Citrix, 51% of respondents thought bad weather affected cloud servers and 95% were under the impression that they had never used the cloud). In relation to “the Snappening” it means having a basic understanding of the security measures erected to keep cyber criminals away from your whimsical, possibly nude selfies. 

This type of digital literacy has more to do with democracy and consumer protection than it does with knowing actual computer code. 

Unlike “the Fappening,” which was the result of a flaw in Apple’s Cyber-security, “the Snappening” may have been a direct result of digital ignorance. After the initial story broke, Snapchat released the following press release, claiming that they were not directly to blame: 

“We can confirm that Snapchat’s servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks. Snapchatters were victimized by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise users’ security.” 

The third party app in question is Snapsaved.com, a website that allows users to save incoming pictures covertly by giving the site their login details. The allure of this basic cheat was enough to get users out from under Snapchats relatively secure infrastructure, but had users possessed a better understanding of the systems that house their online activity and the threats lurking just outside those systems, they may have thought twice before handing over their information to a website they know nothing about. 

Is your interest piqued? Then read on. Below I present a list of related factoids.

It’s not just nudi pics: 

The last few years have witnessed a slew of costly cyber attacks on a wide variety of industries. CitiGroup, LinkedIn, Yahoo, NATO, and the South Carolina Department of Revenue are but a few of those effected over the course of the last 5 years. 

There is a lot is being done to boost digital literacy in America: 

Project Lead The Way has advocated for computer science to be introduced as early as the second grade, The Alliance For California Computing Education For Students And Schools is pushing to get computer science in the core curriculum. Bootstrap uses concepts from algebra and geometry to help them code their own video game. Ardusat partners with schools to give children a chance to program a satellite in orbit. 
“The Fappening” was a result of what hackers refer to as a Brute Force Attack:

Brute Force Attacks are the simplest of cyber attacks in which a program gains access to a database by trying all possible passwords until it gets the right one. This was only possible because iCloud allowed for unlimited password entries, a security flaw which has now been corrected. 

Public debate requires an informed public: 

The only way to combat corporate and government control of the internet is to understand the mechanisms by which they have seized that control. Regulatory legislation will result from specific demands geared towards specific software. For example, to truly understand the NSA’s rapid expansion you have to understand XKEYSCORE

The cyber-security industry is evolving, quickly:

Good old fashioned cyber-security measures are designed to identify pre-existing threats, but in this world of rapidly evolving software such defense measures are no longer enough. A new generation of cyber-security firms employ big data analytics to identify unknown threats facing a given system. By scanning massive data sets for irregular patterns these advanced cyber-protections can identify new and unknown threats as they appear. This type of protection is becoming the norm for governments and major corporations.  

Digital Literacy is power

In the middle ages the clergy had great power over the working poor in part because they were the only ones that were able to actually read the bible. We find ourselves in a similar situation today, where those who understand computer languages wield undue power over the rest of us.