Why hackers target celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence — and who they are


In this Nov. 1, 2011 file photo, Christopher Chaney, 35, of Jacksonville, Fla., leaves federal court in Los Angeles. (Reed Saxon/AP)

If there’s any hacker who can provide clues into the shadowy mechanics that drove the Jennifer Lawrence leak, which spilled dozens of private photographs of her and other celebrities into the darkest corners of the Internet, it’s a bald, bearded man named Christopher Chaney. Until this recent hack, which surpassed his own feats in both audacity and depravity, the 38-year-old was perhaps the most well-known celebrity hacker — “The Man Who Hacked Hollywood.”

He was a 30-something nobody, two years unemployed, and living in a low-rent brick house in Jacksonville, Fla., when he got into the hacking game. For him, according to a GQ profile, it was more about the chase than the science — he wasn’t a hacker looking to hatch innovative code, but one driven by voyeuristic urges. Over several years, his cast of victims brimmed with stars: Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Christina Aguilera and Renee Olstead.

“It turned into just being addicted to being behind the scenes [and seeing] what was going on with these people you see on the big screen every day,” he told Jacksonville’s Fox30 in 2011. “…I honestly don’t even remember how it started or with who it started. It just happened and it snowballed.” But he remembers how it ended: On Oct. 12, 2011, when federal authorities arrested him and he was charged in a 26-count indictment that detailed a profound invasion of privacy into the intimate lives of people Chaney had never met. He entered a guilty plea, and is now two years into a 10-year prison sentence.

Christopher Chaney, 35, of Jacksonville, Fla., talks to a reporter in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011. Chaney pleaded not guilty Tuesday to hacking into the email accounts of celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, Mila Kunis and Scarlett Johansson, whose nude photos eventually landed on the Internet. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Christopher Chaney, 35, of Jacksonville, Fla., talks to a reporter in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Chaney’s actions, and the actions of other hackers, according to academic research, echo what has emerged so far of the Jennifer Lawrence hacker. The pattern: There’s the first hack, followed by mounting boldness, followed by an overpowering desire to share what has been found and claim glory in the broader hacker community. “It was part bragging and part proving who I was to someone,” was how Chaney explained his rationale to GQ.

The shadowy world where the Jennifer Lawrence images first blinked into the public domain was a message board site called 4chan — pervaded by people like Chaney, who allocate communal status to those who furnish the most outrageous material whether irreverent or abhorrent. It’s home to tight-knit hacker communities — communities that in part represent the “computer underground,” according to a 2008 paper in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology.

The paper describes a 4chan-esque set of circumstances, where hackers spill their trove of secrets in a society governed by its own mores and vernacular. “The symbolic identity of the computer underground generates a rich and diverse culture consisting of justifications, highly specialized skills, information-sharing networks, norms, status hierarchies, language and unifying symbolic meanings,” the paper stated. “…Hackers have a distinct image, an imagined identity that binds them, even if they never meet each other.”

The hacker community is a meritocracy, and the desire for status is so great that its denizens share information that’s incriminating, found a 2012 paper in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology. “Successful hackers feel a need to brag and share their accumulated knowledge,” the paper said. “This can help individuals to gain notoriety and status within the hacker community, but increases their risk of detection.”

But most hackers don’t worry about that, according to a survey of 127 hackers conducted by Risk Management Monitor. More than 85 percent of the respondents said they weren’t worried about getting caught. Fifty-one percent said they hacked for the thrill, while 19 percent said they did it for financial gain.

That’s not what Chaney was in it for. He stockpiled private celebrity photographs, sinking deeper into his obsession. Scouring the Internet for 20 hours per day, according to court records, he unlocked e-mail account upon account. He monitored two victims for 10 years. He then shipped off images to sites that ran with them. “There wasn’t the functioning ability to stop myself,” he claimed.

His victims, however, weren’t satisfied by his professed weakness. The pain they say he inflicted was severe. And their reactions reflect much of the debate in today’s scandal. “The worst part for me was the casual reposting and repurposing by so many websites and people,” one anonymous victim said, according to the Florida Times-Union. “The gang mentality that if someone else is already doing it, it doesn’t hurt to join in. … No one seemed to care that we were violated.”

The trial court called Chaney’s behavior “particularly pernicious,” condemning him for his “callous disregard for the victims.” It cited both his “inability to control his behavior,” as well as his inability to “understand the seriousness of his conduct.”

To Chaney, the hacks were all just a game. He wanted to be recognized, to be somebody — so he wiggled into the lives of people who were. And then, perhaps like the 4chan hacker, he couldn’t let go of that feeling. He had to share it with someone.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 photo, American actress, model and singer, Scarlett Johansson, currently starring in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway, poses for a portrait, at Sardi's in New York. The actress with the pouty lips and gentle curves that GQ magazine once called "Babe of the Year" is determined to be a more naturalistic Maggie the Cat in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" that opens Jan. 17., 2013. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
Scarlett Johansson, in 2012. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

To his victims, his activity was dead serious. “I find Christopher Chaney’s actions to be perverted and reprehensible,” said Scarlett Johansson in a victim impact statement before Chaney’s sentencing. “As long as he has access to a computer, Christopher Chaney continues to be a threat to women who believe email communications are personal and confidential.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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