The great celebrity photo leak of 2014 exposed us all to a bit more than we were expecting, highlighting the weaknesses in security of some of our favourite technologies.
After 101 celebrity iCloud accounts were hacked and their personal images published on anonymous online forum 4chan, the world rushed to social media to work out who to blame for the privacy breach. Are these hackers simply black hat criminals who put our private lives fundamentally at risk? Should Apple have ensured its iCloud service was better protected? Or were the celebrities foolish for taking the pictures in the first place?
An important question that has taken a backseat in this ping-pong match of victim blaming and internet paranoia is whether or not we can regain control over our private data and, if so, how.
The way we view our personal lives is evolving. Social media, the life-affirming nature of acquiring comments and likes, has encouraged us to become used to posting our once private information online for all to see.
But people don't seem to acknowledge that the Internet is a public forum used by billions of people and accessed by billions of devices around the world. Every time we take a photo on a mobile phone or tablet that is permanently connected to the Internet (in order to function), that image is automatically uploaded to the Internet. If precautionary steps are not taken to tighten the security on our Dropbox and iCloud accounts, those images are immediately at risk. As the recent scandal reminded us, these services are susceptible to being hacked and we, as users, need to remind ourselves of these risks when considering the content we store on them.
Data: The New Currency
To regain control over our personal lives, we need to understand that the technology we use on a daily basis is simply not completely secure.
The nude photo leak was a painful example of how far people are willing to go to delve into and capitalise on the private lives of celebrities. For this reason, your average Joe probably shouldn't fear falling victim to the same hacker. But it did highlight just how easily and readily our cloud storage accounts are broken into. And, as our personal data is becoming much more valuable and marketable, our cloud storage accounts are inevitably going to be targeted by hackers.
What's In Our Pockets?
The overriding issue is that the majority of us don't know how the technology we own works. And why should we? If it works, there's no reason for us to try decoding it. All too readily, we buy into new phones and software, sign up to services and download apps, without reading the small print or considering where our data ends up.
As the world becomes more technologically advanced (and the Internet becomes almost impossible to completely switch off from), people can recover self-control by educating themselves better. But it should also be the responsibility of companies to ensure their customers understand what they're signing up to.
Nowadays consumers look for ease and simplicity in products, which is why services are designed to be free from hassle and friction. The balance between educating users and retaining a smooth user experience is difficult to strike; yet companies like Apple and Dropbox should give their customers the complete picture, and that means the risks as well as the perks. Otherwise, news stories around hacking will do so instead.
It is unsurprising that each time someone's personal information is passed on without permission or another celebrity falls victim to hacking, the entire world feels violated. As of January 2014, 58% of American adults own a smartphone. When Facebook last checked, there are 1.23 billion of us who are considered active users of the site. These privacy breaches affect us all, famous or not.
The way to ensure we regain control comes down to managing our expectations. Companies can and should do more to trigger a wider cultural debate surrounding our personal data. Whether during purchase or registration, or every time there's a software update, companies should take greater measures to notify their customers and provide explanations. But we must also understand there is an additional price attached to the technology in our pockets. Rather than allow the next hacking scandal to scare us off completely, we should make a conscious effort to comprehend exactly how it works.