US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

News broke Sunday evening that Jennifer Lawrence and a number of other female actors had been the target of hackers seeking naked photos stored online. Immediately, the hunt was on not only for the hacker responsible (distributing the photos was almost certainly a violation of federal law), but also for technological fixes to prevent future leaks.

On Monday, Apple reportedly fixed a bug in iCloud, which hackers appear to have exploited in order to snatch the pictures. Gawker offered tips on locking down online accounts to keep them secure. On the website Vox, an online-defamation lawyer discussed legal protections for victims of “involuntary porn.”

Ultimately, however, protecting privacy in the modern era is going to require more than technological and legal safeguards. It’s going to require a shift in social values.

Writing for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen touched on this idea when she implored readers not to treat the leaked photographs as a scandal. “In the end, it is not Lawrence’s job to correctly ‘play,’ and thus defuse, this potential scandal,” she wrote. “Instead, let it be our task to perform the difficult but necessary labor of not being scandalized at all.” In other words, as important as it is to not violate a person’s privacy, it’s even more important to respect privacy that has already been violated.

Petersen’s suggestion that we begin to move away from judgment and toward compassion is an important starting point. But as a society, we need to go further with our privacy ethos, extending it not only to those who have had their privacy unwittingly violated, but also to those for whom youth or poor judgment has contributed to a regrettable digital history.

For these people, there are some technological and legal options. For those willing to shell out the cash, reputation fixers can alter search-engine results to bury less desirable materials. On the legal front, the European Union recently affirmed the “right to be forgotten,” which could require search engines to scrub certain links and search results. But these are stopgap measures, ways of molding the realties of a public-is-permanent digital age to the values of an earlier privacy-is-possible era.

The “right to privacy” itself is a relatively recent innovation. The Supreme Court first explicitly recognized it in 1965, when it struck down state bans on contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut . The ruling coincided with a major cultural change in attitudes toward private lives. With the rise of second-wave feminism, talking about once-taboo topics like sex, abortion and abuse became a political act. People thus began to share quite a bit more, while at the same time becoming more protective of privacy.

It was a balance Americans could strike because both trends were part of the same desire: more individual control over one’s private life. New technologies have made that control more difficult to achieve because they transform sharing into a public and permanent act. In the early 2000s, as private pictures and emails (belonging to both famous and non-famous people) started making their way online, people were often advised to conduct their private lives as if they were public, to not do things behind closed doors they wouldn’t want the world to see.

But that’s not a workable long-term solution. People deserve to have private lives and not to face outsized penalties when those private lives leak over into the public. People who write racy emails, take nude selfies or even send wrong-headed tweets shouldn’t pay the price in public humiliation or lost job opportunities for the rest of their lives.

And that’s where social change comes in to play. Safeguarding the right to privacy in a society in which all that becomes public becomes permanent requires cultivating greater tolerance for missteps and even misdeeds. When forgetting is impossible, forgiveness is essential. We may no longer be able to fully secure the private world, but we can become better stewards of the public one.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report