Celebrities’ Hacked Private Photos Won’t Hurt Their Careers, Experts Say

Celebrity Hacking
The Project Twins for Variety

It was a digital debacle that alerted Hollywood’s spin doctors — and their famous clients — to the dangers of lax Internet security.

A targeted hack attack on the personal iPhone accounts of dozens of actresses and personalities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst and Selena Gomez, resulted in hundreds of nude photos spewed across the Web’s sleazier quarters. In the wake of the security breach, managers, publicists and agents whose work it is to protect and preserve the public image of A-list talent scrambled to determine how to insulate their clients from such unwanted attention.

“It’s a cold and shocking reminder that technology cannot be trusted,” said Leslee Dart, principal partner at public-relations firm 42West.

But while the headline-grabbing incident cast an ugly spotlight on the risks of an increasingly pervasive digital-media landscape, experts said the hack attack isn’t likely to tarnish the reputations of the victimized thesps.

“This is not going to damage the celebrities involved in a material way,” said Brian Glicklich, chairman of global digital practices for PR firm Sitrick & Co., which specializes in crisis management. “It might embarrass them, it might make them feel bad, but it’s not going to hurt their careers. This was a criminal act perpetrated against them.”

It is, after all, an era in which relatively talent-free personalities such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have become stars, in part because of notorious sex tapes, and respected actors and actresses such as Scarlett Johansson and Colin Farrell have seen photographs and videos of a deeply personal nature make their way into the public square.

It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that some of the actresses whose pics were purportedly purloined, including Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice, claimed the images were fakes. Lawrence and others confirmed via reps that the photos were authentic, and threatened legal action against any outlets that posted them.

After the hack was revealed, top PR firms reached out to bizzers to remind them of the importance of using strong security measures — and to be mindful that the content they upload online, even to private accounts, could become public. “We encourage our clients not to allow anything they don’t want to end up (on the Internet) out on a cloud server,” said Laura Zwicker, a partner at L.A.-based law firm Greenberg Glusker, who deals with celebrity clients.

Just as social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook created fresh challenges for public figures looking to engage with fans while also maintaining a wall around their personal lives, personal cloud-based services — in this case, Apple’s iCloud — also present potential land mines.

The attack exposed photos depicting the actresses in various states of undress. But Glicklich said other personal data, such as text messages, emails and documents, also must be safeguarded. Specifically, turning on two-step verification, which sends unique authentication codes to personal devices, is an important way of keeping information and content uploaded to the cloud from falling prey to phishers and hackers.

“It’s important to understand that this theft was made possible because celebrities, like a lot of regular people, don’t understand what connected devices do with the pictures they take,” Glicklich said.

The FBI said it was investigating the matter, and Apple said it was cooperating with law-enforcement officials to track down the perps.

Some speculated about possible legal issues for Apple, whose iCloud service was hacked using a brute-force password technique, or for sites that hosted the hacked photos. But according to experts, litigation isn’t an advisable strategy. “You can’t really put the genie back in bottle,” Zwicker said. Lawsuits are “just going to prolong the amount of time the photos are in the public eye. It is less a legal issue than a PR issue.”

There’s also the fact that the U.S.’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act shields websites from liability for copyrighted content posted by users, if the websites respond to demands to remove the offending material in a timely manner. (4chan, the site where the images were first posted, last week adopted a DMCA policy to inoculate itself from lawsuits.)

Ultimately, a hack of this magnitude should induce stars and their handlers to be more diligent about online security. “It’s certainly a wake-up call to certain high-profile individuals,” said Benjamin Edelman, associate professor at Harvard Business School, whose areas of expertise include Internet privacy and commerce. “They’ll want to think carefully about how they secure their digital persona.”

For ordinary civilians, the best protection against attacks to privacy is that no one cares about what’s in their personal cloud, with the exception of identity thieves looking to steal money, Edelman said.

But if you’re a celebrity, he added, “You have more to offer than just your bank account — the contents of your phone have a potentially mass appeal.”