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The anatomy of a celebrity nude photo leak

Tracing the fascinating path from private photo to public shame. 


S.E. Smith


Posted on Sep 23, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 1:14 pm CDT

This is the way the nudes spread: Not with a bang, but with a 4chan thread.

As a new batch of celebrity nudes hit the Internet this weekend, the fascinating capillary action involved in the dissemination of compromised information came to the fore. Just how do these images spread, not just in the technical sense of insecure servers and determined hackers, but socially? When it comes to cybersecurity, humans have always been the weakest leaks in the chain, and this is a reminder of how the existence and spread of each celebrity nude reflects a series of individual, coldly calculated actions.

It starts with 4chan, the cesspool of the Internet and the most important site you never visit, about to celebrate its 11th birthday; except that instead of candies and balloons, the site’s users celebrate by distributing the private photographs of celebrities. In the case of CelebGate, it all started with anonIB, an anonymous offshoot of the site.

“The influence of the ephemeral image-based message board 4chan has only grown since Chris “moot” Poole established it as a place to talk completely anonymously about anime, cats, boobs, and more. The lack of censorship inspired an outpouring of creativity from the site’s 22.5 million readers that is both brilliant and brutal,” the Verge’s Adrianne Jeffries wrote last year, and the site is only growing in power and influence.

Like any social media locale, 4chan has its own hidden grammar, logic, and community that may not be readily apparent to outsiders. Even as 4chan has been used for doxxing, bullying, and other acts of cruelty, users have also collaborated on charity projects and acts of random kindness. It might seem paradoxical, but it’s also an expression of the fact that each 4chan user is an individual human being, and that humans are rarely simple.

From the freewheeling comment threads of 4chan, celebrity nudes spread across Imgur and were linked to on Reddit, where ostensibly they’re not permitted under the terms of service, but they tend to stay up anyway. It can take multiple abuse complaints and pressure from users as well as external forces to get the images down; and sites like Reddit may go through the motions when it comes to bowing to pressure, but ultimately, they feel no need to suppress the darker impulses of their users, which is why abusive and horrific subreddits linger. Often, the most vile communities are shockingly profitable

In the meantime, both sites have benefited immensely from serving up the images. They’ve won the PR battle by claiming that they’re taking steps to control their users while taking no meaningful action behind the scenes, and the status quo returns, but the next step in the slow spread of celebrity nudes across the Internet has already begun. Because, of course, users don’t just look at the pictures.

They download them.

Once images start entering private collections, they begin trickling out to The Pirate Bay and other filesharing sites, creating a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. There’s no way to prevent the dissemination of images when they’re already distributed across thousands of hard drives, and being shared to millions of users. Anyone with a decent Internet connection, anywhere in the world, can pick those images up to view or download for future browsing pleasure.

Once the images get this far, there’s no bringing them back, and the Internet takes full advantage of that fact. For every upload, share, and click, there’s an individual who’s making a conscious choice: to engage with those images. While the Internet proclaims that private material “shouldn’t be put in the cloud” because it’s inherently insecure—and that these women are exploiting themselves anyway so it shouldn’t matter if their private images are shared without consentand others shoot back that this is victim-blaming, the spread of celebrity nudes isn’t about the people who took them in the first place, but about the people who chose to distribute them.

As’s Alex McKinnon points out, everyone has a choice when it comes to taking a gander at celebrity nudes:

Considering how many people are now either actively seeking out these photos or profiting by their leaking, it seems people need reminding of a blatantly obvious point about all this: Looking at someone naked for your own pleasure, when they don’t want you to, is a creepy and gross thing to do. The medium you view them in, their celebrity status, or the fact that lots of other people are doing it are not valid reasons or excuses for violating this basic principle. By doing it anyway, you are telling that person—and other people—that their right to bodily privacy is worth less than your desire to get a cheap thrill out of seeing their naked body. Do not do it.

At the Guardian, Van Badham further argued:

Sharing these images is not the same as making a joke including characters such as DogeGrumpy Cat and Sad Keanu. It’s an act of sexual violation, and it deserves the same social and legal punishment as meted out to stalkers and other sexual predators.

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau helpfully suggested that people avoid clicking on links promising “celebrity nudes” because they might be scams. Their comment illustrates both the widespread nature of the viral spread of nudes—they’re so ubiquitous at this point that everyone has heard of the scandal and has likely been exposed to, at the very least, links of the imagesand to the fundamental failure of human beings to behave with any degree of decency. The BBB knows that many may find it irresistible to click through “just to see.”

Things like this move with extreme rapidity across the Internet because of the systems facilitated to help them move, but also because of the people who inhabit, populate, and drive those systems. Social media like Reddit, like 4chan, thrives by having constantly churning content to draw users in and promote their return. Communities on such sites build themselves up around the creation and distribution of content, including content that has been illegally obtained. And that content, in turn, spreads as users take it with them when they travel through their social networks.

It’s like the blue dye used in Maxi pad commercials to illustrate the inferiority of a competitor, starting with a single drop in the middle of the pad and spreading rapidly out to all sides before it begins spilling over. Except that in this case, the blue dye is data, the Maxi pad is the Internet, and the fear of having your alien blue blood show through your tennis whites can be replaced by the dread of having personal information published for the world to see.

And to think—that drop of dye would never have hit the pad in the first place if someone hadn’t chosen to put it there.  

Photo via Double-MFlickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 23, 2014, 11:00 am CDT