Author: Dylan Etzel, Johns Hopkins
Jennifer Lawrence recently opened up to Vanity Fair about naked photos of her leaked on 4chan, “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime…It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible.” The third-party app Snapsaved also experienced hacking that led to exposure of pornography on 4chan. Although Apple and Snapsaved have apologized for faulty security and the victims have threatened posters with civil suits, Jennifer Lawrence is right; nude photo hacking should be a more punishable crime than it is. It is more than a violation of privacy, and the American populace is obsessed with invading the privacy of others, especially its celebrity figures.
This obsession did not begin with the Internet, as is often misconceived. Pornographic publications have sought photos of nude celebrities without consent for decades. Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Anniston have both sued the magazine Celebrity Skin, since disbanded. However, neither case received any discussion as to the criminal nature of the act. The media and the legal system regard these cases as “scandals,” as Jennifer Lawrence decried. The difference between a crime and scandal is massive, as politicians have emphasized for decades. A scandal implies that the victim is to blame—the title of the “scandal” is the “2014 Celebrity Photo Leak” as per Wikipedia. It is not the “2014 Celebrity Cloud Hacking.”
Obsession with scandals is usually more relevant to politicians than politics. Suggestive photography ended the careers of Anthony Weiner, Gary Hart, and Adam Kuhn. Every politician fears allegations of a sexual scandal. Weiner, Hart, and Kuhn, committed no crime, and they did nothing to suggest that they could not be good politicians. The age-old questions about the legitimacy of Clinton’s impeachment are contingent on the fact that he perjured himself in court. Weiner, Hart, and Kuhn, however, came clean (in Weiner’s case, it was a gradual coming clean, but he never lied to a federal court). Yet they received public punishment, while those who photographed them or released photographs were never considered criminals. Their acts may not have been condonable, but public opinion should hinge more on real political questions. And no one ever suggested that they were sexually offended.
The crux of Lawrence’s argument is that not only should nude photo hacking be illegal because of the hacking component, but also because of the sexually offensive nature of the crime. Consider the following: a celebrity is walking down the street, wearing an article of clothing that could be easily removed, and a passerby tears it off. Courts would consider that a sexual offense. Why are the releasers of explicit photos more easily forgiven? The consent of the subject of photographs, as seen with the history of Celebrity Skin, is all-too-often considered optional. Other forms of explicit photos, such as child pornography, are illegal for good reason, and part of that reasoning is that minors are too young to be sexually exploited, just as they are too young to consent to sex with older partners, with the age gap different per state. The idea of consent is indirectly built into the illegality of obtaining child pornography and its nature as a sexually criminal offense, but the same is not true of hacked photos.
In response, the question asked is, “Are people who view the photos accessories to a crime?” Lawrence would say yes, and she has reason. If the consent reasoning is applicable, no one viewing the photos has obtained the consent of the photographed. However, viewership is nearly impossible to legislate for many reasons. It is difficult to prove that an Internet user viewed a photo, especially because that user may not have intended to see it while scrolling down on a thread. Viewership, but not possession, of illegal content is not punishable. For example, only the uploader of an online pirated movie can be prosecuted, even though viewers are complicit in the crime. These reasons intersect the debate over freedom of information on the Internet, a highly relevant political issue. The Snapsaved leak is an important example to this debate: Snapchat blames Snapsaved for a lack of security and the dubious nature of the app, but Snapchat allows screenshots. Anyone who sends a sexually explicit photo over Snapchat may have that photo screenshotted without permission. But it is unclear whether or not that is a crime.
Even if viewership is not a crime, nude photo hacking is a crime that is treated like a scandal. It is not a scandal; subjects photographed are not at fault. The issue of consent is just as relevant to nude photo dissemination as it is to other sexual offenses. It is a political issue. Even if someone consents to another seeing them naked, that consent cannot be extended to others, and especially not to the entire world via the Internet. The most disturbing conclusion is that photo hacking is a product of society’s obsession with privacy invasion. And that needs to change, now.