What is wrong with all of you? Reflections on nude pictures, victim shaming, and cyber security

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[This blog post was co-authored by Professor Samuel Liles and Spaf.]

Over the last few days we have seen a considerable flow of news and social media coverage of untended exposure of celebrity photographs (e.g., here). Many (most?) of these photos were of attractive females in varying states of undress, and this undoubtedly added to the buzz.

We have seen commentary from some in the field of cybersecurity, as well as more generally-focused pundits, stating that the subjects of these photos “should have known better.” These commentators claim that it is generally known that passwords/cloud storage/phones have weak security, so the victims only have themselves to blame.

We find these kinds of comments ill-informed, disappointing, and in many cases, repugnant.

First, we note that the victims of these leaks were not trained in cyber security or computing. When someone falls ill, we don’t blame her for not having performed studies in advanced medicine. When someone’s car breaks down, we don’t blame him for failing to have a degree in mechanical engineering. Few people are deeply versed in fields well outside their profession.

The people involved in these unauthorized exposures apparently took prudent measures they were instructed to on the systems as they were designed. As an example, the passwords used must have passed the checks in place or they would not have been able to set them. It doesn’t matter if we approve of the passwords that passed those automated checks -- they were appropriate to the technical controls in place. What the people stored, how they did it, or the social bias against their state of dress has nothing to do with this particular issue.

Quite simply, the protection mechanisms were not up to the level of the information being protected. That is not the users’ fault. They were using market standards, represented as being secure. For instance, it is admitted that Apple products were among those involved (and that is the example in some of our links). People have been told for almost a decade that the iOS and Apple ecosystem is much more secure than other environments. That may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t take into account the persistent, group effort that appears to have been involved in this episode, or some of the other criminal deviants working in groups online. We have met a few actresses and models, and many young people. They don’t think of risk in the same way security professionals do, and having them depend on standard technology alone is clearly insufficient against such a determined threat.

Consider: assume you live in a nice house. You’ve got windows, doors, and locks on those windows and doors. You likely have some kind of curtains or window coverings. If you live in a house, even a house with no yard, if you close your curtains we accept that as a request for privacy. If I walk up on the sidewalk and attempt to peer into your windows, that is being a “peeping tom.” Even though I might have every right to stand on the sidewalk, face the direction I’m looking, and stop or pause, I do not have the right to violate your privacy.

Consider: Your house has a nice solid door with a nice lock. That lock likely has orders of magnitude less entropy than a password. Every night you walk through your house, lock your doors, and you go to sleep believing you are likely safe. Yet, that lock and that door will not stop a group of determined, well-equipped attackers or likely even slow them down. The police will not arrive for some amount of time and effective self-protection against unexpected provocation by a gang is uncertain, at best. As a polite and law-abiding society, we respect the door and the lock, and expect others to do the same. We understand that the door and lock keep honest people honest. They set a barrier to entry for criminals. Burglaries still happen and we use the power of law to enact punishment against criminals, although many crimes go unsolved.

If an unauthorized entry to your house occurs, whether by picking the lock, climbing through the window, or discovering a loose set of boards in the wall, we would never blame you, the victim — it is clear that the person who entered, unbidden, was to blame. Some of our peers would try to blame the companies that made the locks and windows, rather than acknowledge the bad intent of the burglar. Too many people in information security tend to think we can always build better locks, or that having “white hats” continually picking locks somehow will lead to them being unpickable. Many are so enamored of the technology of those locks and the pastime of picking them that they will blame the victim instead of anything to do with the production or design of the locks themselves. (This is not a new phenomenon: Spafford wrote about this topic 22 years ago.)

One fundamental error here is that all locks are by design meant to be opened. Furthermore, the common thinking ignores the many failures (and subsequent losses) before any "super lock" might appear. We also observe that few will be able to afford any super-duper unpickable locks, or carry the 20-pound key necessary to operate them. Technological protections must be combined with social and legal controls to be effective.

This leads to our second major point.

Imagine if that burglary occurred at your house, and you suffered a major loss because the agent of the crime discovered your artwork or coin collection. We would not dream of blaming you for the loss, somehow implying that you were responsible by having your possessions stored in your house. If somebody were to say anything like that, we would reproach them for blaming/shaming the victim. Society in general would not try to castigate you for having possessions that others might want to steal.

Unfortunately, many computer professionals (and too many others, outside the profession) have the mindset that crimes on computers are somehow the fault of the victim (and this has been the case for many years). We must stop blaming the victims in cases such as this, especially when what they were doing was not illegal. We see criticism of their activities instead of the privacy invasion as blaming/shaming no less atrocious as that of how rape victims are treated — and that is also usually badly, unfortunately.

If we give users lousy technology and tell them it is safe, they use it according to directions, and they do not understand its limitations, they should not be blamed for the consequences. That is true of any technology. The fault lies with the providers and those who provide vague assurances about it. Too bad we let those providers get away with legally disclaiming all responsibility.

We are sympathetic to the argument that these exposures of images should perhaps be considered as a sex crime. They were acts of taking something without permission that violated the privacy and perceptions of safety of the victim for the sexual gratification and sense of empowerment of the perpetrator (and possibly also other reasons). Revenge porn, stalking, assault, and rape are similar...and we should not blame the victims for those acts, either. The sexually-themed abuse of female journalists and bloggers is also in this category -- and if you aren't aware of it, then you should be: women who write things online that some disagree with will get threats of violence (including rape), get abusive and pornographic messaging and images (deluges of it), and called incredibly offensive names...sometimes for years. It is beyond bullying and into something that should be more actively abhorred.

Some male members of the cyber security community are particularly bad in their treatment of women, too.

Between the two of us, Sam and Spaf, we have served as professors, counselors, and one of us (Liles) as a law enforcement officer; we have well over 50 years combined professional experience with both victims and bad behavior of their abusers. We have counseled female students and colleagues who have been stalked and harassed online for years. They keep encountering law enforcement officials and technologists who ask "What are you doing to encourage this?" None of them encourage it, and some live in real terror 24x7 of what their stalkers will do next. Some have had pictures posted that are mortifying to them and their loved ones, they've lost jobs, had to move, withdraw from on-line fora, lost relationships, and even change their names and those of their children. This can last for years.

Sexual offenders blame the victim to absolve themselves of responsibility, and thus, guilt. "She was acting suggestively," "she was dressed that way," etc. If the people around them chime in and blame the victim, they are excusing the criminal -- they are reinforcing the idea that somehow the victim provoked it and the abuser "obviously couldn't help himself.” They thus add unwarranted guilt and shame to the victim while excusing the criminal. We generally reject this with offenses against children, realizing that the children are not responsible for being abused. We must stop blaming all adult victims (mostly female, but others also get abused this way), too.

Victim blaming (and the offensively named slut shaming -- these aren't "sluts," they are victimized women) must STOP. Do you side with privacy rights and protection of the public, or with the rapists and abusers? There is no defendable middle ground in these cases.

We are also horrified by the behavior of some of the media surrounding this case. The crimes have been labeled as leaks, which trivializes the purposeful invasion and degradation performed. Many outlets provided links to the pictures, as did at least one well-known blogger. That illustrates everything wrong about the paparazzi culture, expressed via computer. To present these acts as somehow accidental (“leak”) and blame the victims not only compounds the damage, but glosses over the underlying story — this appears to be the result of a long-term criminal conspiracy of peeping toms using technologies to gather information for the purpose of attacking the privacy of women. This has allegedly been going on for years and law enforcement has apparently had almost no previous interest in the cases — why isn’t that the lead story? The purposeful exploitation of computer systems and exposure of people's private information is criminal. Some pundits only began to indicate concern when it was discovered that some of the pictures were of children.

It is clear we have a long way to go as a society. We need to do a better job of building strong technology and then deploying it so that it can be used correctly. We need to come up with better social norms and legal controls to hold miscreants accountable. We need better tools and training for law enforcement to investigate cyber crimes without also creating openings for them to be the ones who are regularly violating privacy. We need to find better ways of informing the public how to make cyber risk-related decisions.

But most of all, we need to find our collective hearts. Instead of idealizing and idolizing the technology with which we labor, deflecting criticisms for faults onto victims and vendors, we need to do a much better job of understanding the humanity — including both strengths and weaknesses — of the people who depend on that technology. The privacy violations, credit card fraud, espionage, harassment, and identity thefts all have real people as victims. Cyber security is, at its core, protecting people, and the sooner we all take that to heart, the better.


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