I was chatting with my friend and sometime-sparring partner, Washington Free Beacon managing editor Sonny Bunch, yesterday about the distribution of a large cache of stolen nude photos of celebrities. While I was turned off by the smugness that suggested that the theft was somehow the victims’ fault, he was disturbed by another element of the response, the idea that there is no harm done in viewing the pictures once they are out there.
Our conversation ultimately turned to another question: the language we use to talk about the release of material like this, which has become disturbingly muddied. There are two terms that have come up frequently to describe the release of the photos: “leak” and “hack.” The former term, in this instance, can suggest that this was some sort of accident, rather than the result of hard work and malign intent. We should stop using it in these situations immediately.
Cloud storage lockers do not “leak.” Intimate photographs that famous women and men took with their partners in deeply private moments (and in some cases, when they were underage) are not simply dripping out into the Internet and seeping into other people’s storage accounts, like a case of faulty and annoying plumbing.
These pictures were not strategically released by the celebrities, like certain sex tapes or early tracks from a forthcoming album, put out into the world in a way that lets the people who created the material test the response to it while also denying that they were responsible for distributing it. The people who amassed this cache and then released it were not even government or corporate officials, prying loose information the public desperately needed to know and getting it to the media at considerable personal risk.
These pictures were stolen. They were distributed in a way that is meant to humiliate the subjects, particularly women, and to deny them their right to choose who sees them nude and in intimate situations. The release of the pictures this weekend was the result of a series of active decisions, apparently made over a long period of time. It was not an accidental “leak.”
We could also argue about whether it is proper to call the theft and release of the photos a “hack,” a term that originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a way to describe pranking and practical jokes that were bound by a certain code of ethics. The term has come to be used in a much broader and more value-neutral way to describe everything from efforts to live life in a more efficient way to breaking into phone and computer systems (a practice originally known as “cracking”).
It might be accurate to say that the people who have experienced this gross violation had their accounts hacked. But that term has an element of puckishness and cleverness that clings to it, blurring the malevolence and entitlement of the act.
Instead, can we please call these events what they are? A group of famous women and men experienced a series of break-ins. Their personal mementos were stolen and are being widely distributed without their consent. This is not an accident. It is on purpose. And we have a responsibility to use language that acknowledges what really happened and that makes clear that something can be done, by both corporations and law enforcement, to prevent and punish this kind of behavior.