Technology First Look

Emma Watson's photo hack: How much control do we have over our own images?

Private photos of the actress were stolen. Even less conspicuous targets for hackers may see reason to take extra cybersecurity measures.

Cast member Emma Watson poses at the premiere of 'Beauty and the Beast' in Los Angeles, on March 2, 2017.
Mario Anzuon/Reuters
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Hackers stole private photos belonging to Emma Watson, her publicists say, after several of the images appeared online on Tuesday night.

“Photos from a clothes fitting Emma had with a stylist a couple of years ago have been stolen,” her publicist told the BBC. “They are not nude photographs. Lawyers have been instructed and we are not commenting further.”

The theft is likely to revive debates about the distribution of women’s private images without their consent, especially given Ms. Watson’s notoriety as a feminist figure. It might also animate anxieties about the security of images stored in online databases even among women who are less of an obvious target for hackers than celebrities.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2014, hundreds of millions of users keep private information on cloud servers like the Apple iCloud, which was accessed by hackers who stole nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and other female celebrities in that year’s “Celebgate” scandal:

Perhaps the simplest step that cloud users can take [to protect their data] is to add a second layer of authentication similar to that employed by many banking websites.

Both Google and Apple offer multiple-layer verification features. They aren’t default settings, so users have to search for them.

Apple’s two-step verification system tethers an Apple ID to a specific device, most commonly a cellphone. Any time a user with activated two-step verification makes any changes to their Apple ID account, Apple sends a four digit verification code to the specified device as a secondary password. This feature means that even if hackers crack a user’s password, they can’t make blanket changes to the account. It won’t keep hackers out entirely, but it will prevent them from locking the verified user out of their own account.

Google offers a similar feature for its suite of services including Google Drive, Gmail, and Google+.

Watson was also threatened, in the midst of 2014’s Celebgate, with the release of private nude images, in what turned out to be a hoax that the actress attributes to a speech on gender equality she gave before the United Nations as a goodwill ambassador that year, notes The Washington Post.

“I knew it was a hoax, I knew the pictures didn't exist,” said Watson at a 2015 Facebook event, according to the BBC. “The minute I stepped up and talked about women's rights I was immediately threatened – within less than 12 hours I was receiving threats.”

The leak of Watson’s private photos comes in the weeks after she drew criticism from some quarters for a Vanity Fair shoot in which she posed in a revealing crochet top – a shoot that some described as antithetical to feminist ideals. The actress has said those criticisms were fueled by “a fundamental and complete misunderstanding of what feminism is,” according to the Associated Press.

“Feminism is about equality and it's about choice,” she told the agency. “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women.” 

This report contains material by the Associated Press.