The Fine Line Between Digital and Public

In the wake of the recent theft (not leak, but theft) of photos of female celebrities, I keep thinking about how the persistence of digital information makes this sort of theft possible. The crime committed is just as shameful as (or even more shameful than) a peeping tom peering in through a bedroom window, but the digital nature of the crime magnifies the effect at both ends, multiplying both the number of bedroom windows and the number of peeping tom eyes.

Nearly 80 years ago, Walter Benjamin wrote in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence-and nothing else-that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.

The problem with digital information, like the photos in this case, is that they lack the here and now of the human to which they're attached, the unique humanity of a particular person. This is privacy in the age of digitial reproduction.

I'm reminded of something I wrote a few months back, in the wake of revelations about NSA spying, on the unforeseen stickiness of the web:

In those early days, the internet felt like an ocean made for skinny-dipping; instead of doffing your clothes, you doffed your identity. You could read about, look at, discuss, and eventually purchase just about anything that interested you, without fear of anyone looking at you funny. This lack of identity could be used for nefarious purposes, of course, and it could lead people down any number of self-destructive paths. But for many, it was liberating to find that, on the web, you could explore your true nature and find fellow travelers without shame.

But as paranoia grows about the NSA reading our emails and Google tapping into our home thermostats, it’s increasingly clear that — rather than providing an identity-free playground — the web can just as easily capture and preserve aspects of our identities we would have preferred to keep hidden. What started as a metaphor to describe the complexly interconnected network has come to suggest a spider’s sticky trap.

It's especially depressing, though not surprising, that women in particular are the targets of this crime, since women historically have been afforded so much less privacy than men. It should go without saying that searching for or looking at these pictures makes you part of the problem.