In technology, there’s no such thing as “unhackable.” Female stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Rihanna, Kirsten Dunst and a slew of others found that out the hard way when an anonymous 4chan user leaked a bevy of naked smartphone photos of them on the image-sharing forum.
Lewd or risqué celebrity selfies going public may sound like just another day in Hollywood, but the details in this exploit could send a chill down any iPhone user’s spine. The reason: The hack supposedly targeted Apple’s iCloud service—specifically the Photo Stream feature used by millions of iPhone owners since its launch with iOS 5.
Like many other iPhone users, some of those victims thought deleting the images from their phones got rid of them forever. So they trashed the pics, only to see them sweep across the Internet and Twitter this weekend.
The idea behind Photo Stream is to make all of your recent pictures available on your other Apple devices—Macs, iPhones, iPads, and so on. Shoot a selfie with an iPhone, and it shows up on your iPad; capture your iPad’s screen, and the image pops up on your Mac (via iPhoto).
When the service rolled out in 2011, it was fairly minimal. iPhone users couldn’t even delete images from Photo Stream. When they manually removed pictures from their Camera Rolls, those pics stubbornly stayed put in the cloud service. Eventually, Apple added the capability, but in a rather confusing way.
Consider these three scenarios:
1. Delete a photo from your Camera Roll (under the Albums tab), and it’s gone from your phone’s storage. However, it’s still there in Photo Stream.
2. You could remove a picture from your Photo Stream (also in the Albums tab), but it will remain in your iPhone’s Camera Roll.
3. You can delete an image from both the Camera Roll and Photo Stream at once, but only in a certain area: the Photos tab (not Albums).
According to the official help documents, Photo Stream photos are supposed to age out at the 30-day mark—which should be plenty of time to download the pics to your Apple devices. But it also says your iPhone and iPad will keep a rolling 1,000-photo stash. I have some in there that are years old, for instance. In those cases, you may well have old snap shots hanging around that you thought were long gone.
iOS 8 will bring a few changes to the way iPhones handle photos, but it’s not clear if these will clarify anything or just make things more confusing.
Right now, iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads deal with images in three ways: All photos you snap with those devices wind up in both the Camera Roll and Photo Stream. The Apple gadgets also display all the images in your Photo Stream, to show pics taken on any of your other mobile devices, or Photo Streams your friends and family members share with you. Finally, the device holds whatever images or albums you sync from your Mac’s iPhoto software through iTunes.
The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system will introduce a new iCloud Photo Library. Think of it as a way of replacing iPhoto syncing through iTunes with a cloud option, one that sells extra storage for a dirt-cheap price: 5GB free, 20GB of storage for $1 per month, or 200GB for $4 monthly.
See also: How To Protect Yourself In The Cloud
This sounded like a great deal when Apple announced it in June, but the latest leaks could make it less attractive. And it still does nothing to ease the confusion of Camera Roll vs. Photo Stream management.
How To Protect Your iPhone Photos
If there’s any nervousness about the safety of iPhone photos, that may be because Apple has said precious little about it.
This is bad timing for the tech company, which is on the verge of holding a much-anticipated press conference next week to reveal new devices. Apple announced it had investigated the hacks, and put the blame on “targeted attacks” on celebrities’ passwords and security questions, dismissing reports of a possible security hole in its Find My iPhone software.
But plenty of sites manage to protect people using just usernames and passwords. Apple’s response should rightly leave iPhone owners wondering if they shouldn’t shut off the Photo Stream feature entirely.
It’s not a bad idea, if you have a lot of sensitive images you want to protect. But you’ll have to weigh that against the convenience of having your recent pics across all of your Apple gadgets—or the possibility that Photo Stream could save the day if the worst should happen to your iPhone. (Take it from me—when my phone shattered on a concrete floor a couple of years ago, I was heartbroken over losing several recent images, until Photo Stream gave them back to me.)
Here are a variety of tactics to boost the security:
• You can shut off Photo Stream by going into Settings, then “Photos & Camera” to switch off the My Photo Stream feature. Then never upload your images to any cloud service—including Google or Dropbox. For the super paranoid, only sync those pics to your own physical hard drive, and make sure it’s not connected to the Internet.
• When you’re only talking about a few confidential photos, you may want to manage your Photo Stream instead. Basically, you’re letting Photo Stream sync all of your pics, but you manually remove specific ones.
• Turn on two-step verification. Like many other companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and other services, Apple offers two-step verification. If anyone (including you) attempts to access your iCloud/iTunes account by using your login, the service will text your phone with a temporary code for you to enter, theoretically preventing them from getting in.
[Update: Looks like Apple’s two-factor authentication doesn’t protect you as much as it should. The second-factor temporary code only kicks in when you update your Apple ID settings, get Apple ID support or use a new device to purchase something in iTunes, iBooks or the App Store. Accessing iCloud backups from new machines don’t appear to trigger the two-factor authentication. Apple, however, is reportedly exploring that.]
The company doesn’t promote this feature, nor does it make it simple to use. When you’ve made major changes to your account, it requires users to hang on through a waiting period first. According to the Apple support page:
Significant changes can include a password reset or new security questions. This waiting period helps Apple make sure that you are the only person accessing or modifying your account. While you are in this waiting period, you can continue using your account as usual with all Apple services and stores.
In theory, it makes sense. If someone breaches your account, they could tie a different phone number to it, effectively locking you out. However, if you have reason to believe your account has been compromised, that’s exactly when you would sensibly want to change your password. In those circumstances, the delay could prevent you from adding an extra layer of security quickly. (Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its security practices.)
There’s only a week before Apple’s media event, where it’s expected to unveil the new iPhone 6, as well as a possible new smartwatch. With a potentially burgeoning product lineup, the last thing CEO Tim Cook and his team wants is for security concerns to mar the idyllic iOS landscape they’re trying to portray.
Lead photo via Shutterstock