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Apple iCloud under scrutiny as nude celebrity photos leaked

Cast member Jennifer Lawrence poses at the premiere of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in Los Angeles, California November 18, 2013.


A mass leak of nude celebrity photos is sparking fears about iCloud vulnerability and renewed warnings that people need to be more careful with their digital content.

News of the photos of A-list singers and actors began to appear Sunday on the bulletin board 4chan. Among the targets were Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, whose publicist confirmed photos of her had been accessed, the reality star Kim Kardashian and award-winning singer Rihanna.

According to people who saw the original post on 4chan, the person was claiming to have taken the photos from iCloud accounts and was seeking to sell them for Bitcoins.

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"This is a flagrant violation of privacy," Ms. Lawrence's publicist Liz Mahoney wrote in a statement. "The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos."

The FBI released a statement Monday saying it is aware of the allegations "concerning computer intrusions and the unlawful release of material involving high profile individuals," and is "addressing the matter," Laura Eimiller, an agency spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said by e-mail.

Apple also released a brief statement Monday. "We take user privacy very seriously and are actively investigating this report," spokeswoman Nat Kerris said.

With few details to go on, technology analysts have been debating the ways these images might have been accessed. Theories range from phishing scams to poorly chosen passwords, with an alleged security vulnerability emerging as a strong candidate.

According to The Next Web Blog, someone recently posted a way to attempt multiple passwords in quick succession. That could have opened the door to what is called a "brute force" attack. Canadian tech analyst and writer Carmi Levy, who stressed that it was still early and that the incident was still being investigated, pointed to this as a plausible scenario.

"Basically, they can try a million different passwords on Jennifer Lawrence's account and Jennifer Lawrence will have no idea that this is going on," he said in a phone interview Monday. "Eventually they just busted in the front door. It was essentially the equivalent of using a battering ram. It wasn't subtle, it was just trying again and again and again after they managed to disable the alarm."

From the first access, he added, the hacker could use information found in the account to pursue other people.

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In a piece posted Monday, The Next Web said "it seems Apple patched the [vulnerability] today."

Hacking of celebrities' phones became a scandal that rocked the media in Britain, where it emerged that many people had not changed the default password that came with the device. And even when they take greater care, the scrutiny of celebrity life means that it can be easy for hackers to jump through security hoops such as questions about a mother's maiden name or the elementary school the star attended. In a major U.S. case, a Florida man used publicly available information to access the e-mail accounts of celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis and Christina Aguilera "I have been truly humiliated and embarrassed," said Ms. Johansson, who had nude photos taken, said in a tearful videotaped statement played in court at the man's 2012 sentencing.

Mr. Levy said that the most recent incident was a reminder that digital security has to be taken seriously. It's a warning that he and other analysts have repeated many times but seems to have trouble sinking in.

"You don't have to be a celebrity to be affected by this particular attack," he said. "This is a message to all of us that we are still not doing enough to maintain our online security. That we are still committing questionable content to digital platforms, like naked pictures or compromising photos or videos, under the false assumption that we believe that they are private. When, in fact, once something has been digitized or captured digitally it is never going to be even remotely private. You know, the very act of taking a picture on an iPhone can instantly commit it to the cloud."

With reports from Associated Press and Bloomberg

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More


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