In 2014, someone created an online clock and called it “Emma you are next.” It was supposed to count down the seconds until some anonymous Internet baddie would release stolen nude images of actress Emma Watson. The countdown clock turned out to be a hoax, appearing just after the “Celebgate” celebrity photo hacks and after Watson gave a feminist speech as a U.N. goodwill ambassador for women.
There were no stolen nudes to release; the whole thing, its creators claimed, was a prank to shut down 4chan over the site’s role in distributing revealing images stolen from the private accounts of female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. It’s even more likely that the “Emma you are next” incident was simply a sketchy attention grab without any real cause behind it.
The hoax was believable at the time in part because the distribution of stolen private images of women has become a fixture of online abuse. And as it turns out, someone out there really was determined enough to abuse Watson in this way: A handful of private images of the actress appeared online Tuesday night.
“Photos from a clothes fitting Emma had with a stylist a couple of years ago have been stolen,” a publicist for Watson confirmed to the BBC. “They are not nude photographs. Lawyers have been instructed and we are not commenting further.”
It’s not clear where the images were first posted, or how they were stolen from her.
On 4chan, several photos that appeared to fit her publicist’s description were still circulating Wednesday afternoon. Users were posting them alongside some nude images that did not show the face of the subject. Others had photoshopped the original, non-nude images to make them more revealing. There was also speculation that the stolen trove of images contained photos of other celebrities — although none mentioned have confirmed that this is the case.
Celebgate is the obvious context for the newest release of stolen images. Watson had commented on Celebgate after it happened:
Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated on social media is reading the accompanying comments that show such a lack of empathy.
— Emma Watson (@EmmaWatson) September 1, 2014
Celebgate was a major story that brought a lot of attention to this phenomenon of online harassment, but it hardly deterred the perpetrators. Over the summer, hackers accessed the personal website of the actress Leslie Jones and used it to release private information, along with stolen nude images. Online business empires rose and fell on the premise that jilted exes would be interested in creating “revenge porn,” or publicly posting revealing images of someone, along with their name and identifying details, without their consent.
Actress Mischa Barton said Wednesday that an alleged “sex tape” of her reportedly being shopped around to porn companies in Hollywood was, in fact, revenge porn, recorded using secret cameras without her consent by someone “I thought I loved and trusted.” When she learned of what had happened, Barton said, “my absolute worst fear was realized.”
— Claudia Rosenbaum (@CJRosenbaum) March 15, 2017
The victims of this tactic are hardly all famous women or exes. In fact, celebrities account for just a fraction of the cases. Fraternities have created secret Facebook pages to share nude images of unconscious women taken without their consent. The Defense Department is investigating hundreds of Marines for alleged involvement in a massive scheme to share revealing images of female service members — often accompanied by the women’s names and harassing commentary.
The scope of that particular scandal is unknown, but it appears to be widening rapidly. And then there are places like AnonIB, a message board that shows up again and again in stories about nude-photo scandals, where people post revealing images of women that were never intended to be public.
A growing number of states have laws that criminalize “revenge porn,” and law enforcement appears to be more aggressively pursuing those who release stolen, private images to the public. Federal legislation has failed to find a consensus among lawmakers. As we explained before, the main issue there seems to be a struggle to balance the First Amendment with the right to privacy.
A man pleaded guilty last year to a felony violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for his role in stealing many of the private, nude photographs of celebrities that were released online in late 2014. According to court filings, Ryan Collins used a phishing scheme, mostly targeting the iCloud and Gmail accounts of celebrities, to gain access to their accounts.
Edward Majerczyk of Chicago also pleaded guilty in September to a felony charge related to the Celebgate scandal. Majerczyk’s attorney told a federal judge at the time that there was no evidence to support the idea that his client was attempting to sell the images. The judge asked whether Majerczyk was using a phishing scheme to access the private images of his victims “for his own personal satisfaction and enjoyment,” according to the Chicago Tribune. His attorney’s response: “Yes, your honor.”