We now know a vast amount about how the iCloud accounts of celebrities were hacked into. Posts on porn forum AnonIB revealed how “OriginalGuy” shared the collection of images, as well as showing how hackers have exploited holes in Apple’s iCloud service for years.
But one thing that wasn’t immediately clear is why celebrities had come to store their deleted photographs online, with many of the naked photographs seeming to date back years.
Celebrities are constantly stalked by their fans and by paparazzi. They complain frequently about their privacy being destroyed. It’s puzzling why, at the same time, they were storing nude images of themselves online. Didn’t they fear being exposed?
Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the first celebrity to confirm the authenticity of the leaked photos, and claimed that the photos weren’t recent at all, but were taken “years ago” before being deleted “long ago.” Winstead seemed confused as to how hackers gained access to a photo she had deleted, but iCloud’s unclear photo backup system could be to blame.
Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked.
— Mary E. Winstead (@M_E_Winstead) August 31, 2014
One possible explanation is due to the way the iPhone handles backups. We’re not saying this is the precise, proximate cause of stars stashing a mountain of their private material online. But the iPhone backup process sure doesn’t make it easy if you want to stop that from happening by accident.
Here is how it works. The iPhone only runs an iCloud backup when three conditions are met:
- The device is charging;
- connected to Wi-Fi;
- and locked.
The only other way to create an iCloud backup is to manually force the device to do it.
Jet-setting celebrities rarely have time to connect to a Wi-Fi network and leave their phone charging. Stars like Kate Upton spend much of their life travelling from photo shoot to awards dinners, staying in hotels or relaxing on private jets.
And they’re loathe to just leave their phones unattended while they’re plugged into a socket, because their entourages are often also the source of tabloid leaks. They probably don’t trust hotel wifi services either — would you, when you’re a frequent target of privacy invasions?
Jennifer Lawrence actually admitted to being lax with iCloud backups in a red carpet interview with MTV. Speaking before the leaked photos emerged, Lawrence remarked “My iCloud keeps telling me to back it up, and I’m like, I don’t know how to back you up. Do it yourself!”
The news that Lawrence doesn’t know how to use iCloud would have been music to the ears of any hacker looking for a target.
Irregular iCloud backups mean that photos can remain online for months after they were deleted from the camera roll of the device. If, for example, an actress took a photo of herself to send to a friend, went to sleep, and her iPhone ran an iCloud backup overnight, that photo is then stored online. But if she deleted the photograph from the iPhone Camera Roll before heading out for a two-week business trip to Los Angeles, that photo will live on in iCloud. Deleting the photo from the device won’t erase it from the iCloud backup until a new backup is created. The photo — which she thinks she deleted — is just sitting there on iCloud. You also can’t “see” which photos are in iCloud until you perform a restorative backup. And why would you, if you already believed you deleted the private image?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained that the company will roll out a number of improvements to iCloud security over the next month. Amongst the changes, Apple plans to send emails and push notifications when iCloud backups are accessed, as well as modifying its two-factor authentication system.
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