active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Why everyone should watch Aubrey Plaza masturbate

Privacy is a perception. And when it comes to some of our very public technology, most of us are getting it wrong.

Celebrity smartphone leaks, such as the ‘frappening’ in 2014 in which a huge number of ‘private’ pictures were extracted from Apple’s iCloud service, ought to be a fact of life for those in the public eye. You’d think they would take especial care.

Some might say, so what? If you’re a celebrity, you’ve chosen to make yourself public property. Doesn’t that give me the right to hack into your ‘private’ smartphone data?

You want me to look at you? Well, here I am, looking.

And plenty of celebrities play exactly that game. A so-called leaked sex tape is the perfect way to spice up your public image, with an added frisson of transgression you’d never get from a Playboy spread. Some celebrities understand the value of their bodies and make the most of them. That doesn’t make them porn actresses any more than porn actresses are prostitutes. Right?

No woman should have to suffer the indignity of having photos of her climbing out of a car splashed across the tawdry press. But some celebrities do dress (and not dress) for the reveal. There are paparazzi that specialize in being in just the right place to get that upskirt shot, and a public that seems inordinately curious about the genitalia of famous people.

This is a game that everybody plays together, all the time, a never-ending circle of tacit permission.

But let’s put the shameless self-promoters aside for a moment. Does it seem likely that Kaley Cuoco (Penny in The Big Bang Theory) wanted anybody to see her on the toilet, or Aubrey Plaza (April in Parks And Recreation) expected the world to watch her masturbating in front of a bathroom mirror?

Neither act is likely to gain these actresses the kind of publicity or notoriety that might advance their career. So why did they happen?

What’s the first thing you do when you get your first smartphone? Apparently, it’s take photographs or movies of yourself, and watch yourself doing it. That’s why the manufacturers put a camera on the front — and don’t pretend it’s got anything to do with videoconferencing.

Whether you’re doing this for yourself, for a significant other, or for random distribution, the selfie, clothed or unclothed, appears to be a universal.

Some people even buy wearable, always-on cameras so they can share with the world just what exciting lives they lead. One definition of an exciting life: not giving a shit about other people’s camera feeds.

In other words, it’s not just celebrities who are narcissistic, and the technology itself has formed a basis for exhibitionism.

Scroll (or swipe) back a few decades, to the age when all we had were film cameras. Generally, people were careful about what they took photos of, partly because developing film was relatively expensive, and partly because they usually didn’t do it themselves.

So your nude snaps of your girlfriend, for example, no matter how arty you told her they were, would end up in the local photo processing lab for the people there to snigger over, and maybe make copies of for themselves and their mates.

The film camera, in other words, was considered a public device. The things it saw were restrained by the knowledge that it was public.

Next came the polaroid and the camcorder, neither of which needed external processing. Suddenly the private experience could be recorded with the knowledge that it would remain private. Sure, you could choose to share your sex tape with your friends, but this was your choice. If you kept it hidden away, nobody else had to see.

The digital camera greatly increased the possibilities (since these cameras rapidly blossomed into high definition) but also greatly increased the risk. Whatever users took pictures of would remain private as long as they were transferred only to a private computer. They became public if the user decided to upload them to the internet, or didn’t undertake basic privacy procedures.

There was a clear division between the private computer and the public webspace, but still the technology was new enough for people to get it wrong.

I remember having awkward conversations with less net-smart friends about the photos of their children they’d decided to put on their yearly web update.

Whatever gets on the web is out of your hands the moment it’s uploaded. If the internet was an alley in your local town, you’d definitely never enter it. And you certainly wouldn’t want to see photos of your kids plastered up there.

Over the last twenty years, advances in consumer imaging have gotten people used to thinking of technology as private. Because there was no processing cost involved, they also got people used to taking a lot of footage of themselves.

Meanwhile, people could see a ‘public’ surveillance culture growing up around them. The CCTV signaled the transition from a private space (your home) to a public space (everywhere else).

If you brought surveillance into your home, you did it out of choice — and not just to spy on your babysitter. The Mitsubishi air conditioners in my house have little cameras that constantly sweep the rooms they’re in, checking to see where we are so that they can direct hot/cold air in our direction. But I’m pretty sure they’re not hooked up to the net (yet).

Webcams have also brought the public into the private space. There’s some controversy right now about tablet or smartphone cameras that are either permanently on or can be activated remotely without the owner’s permission.

The answer is common sense. Don’t leave your iPhone pointing in your direction when you’re on the toilet.

But here’s where the smartphone has confused the private/public divide. It’s a device that has grown seamlessly out of the laptop — so seamlessly, in fact, that people tend to think of it as a digital camera and a phone rather than as a phone that also transmits photos and movies. It appears to be private. But in fact it is as public as the internet itself.

The moment you take a photo or movie using your smartphone, you’ve entered into a covenant with your service provider in which you both pretend this material still belongs to you.

You carry your smartphone everywhere. It’s a phone, after all. It’s simple to use as a camera — just point and click. There’s no cost involved. But unless you take precautions, every image you record is transferred to the manufacturer’s cloud (an internet storage area) where it is not safe.

Smartphone companies will tell you they do this for your convenience. If your phone breaks or is stolen, or you upgrade your model, you’ve still got access to everything that was on the old phone.

It’s not just Apple that is vulnerable to leaks. And can you really be sure what’s happening with your ‘private’ images the moment you’ve placed them on a public server? The intelligent response is to regard the smartphone as what it is: a public recording mechanism you’ve brought into your private space. But how many of us actually do that?

And what happens in the next inevitable phase: permanently-connected PCs that store everything in the cloud?

At the moment, my home PC is my last bastion of privacy. If I want to be absolutely secure, I can unplug it from the network. The plug’s right here on the back of the router. But I can feel the pressure from manufacturers, advertisers and the government for me to upgrade to a model with built-in WiFi that stores everything in the public space. For my convenience, of course.

Kaley Cuoco has an excuse. The footage leaked of her was taken not by herself but by a partner. Cuoco’s intimate life was made public because she allowed another person to infiltrate her privacy.

Perhaps — in the immortal phrase of schoolgirls and ex-girlfriends everywhere — she trusted the recipient of the imagery. But she would have done better to stick one of those little security labels over the camera of any phone entering her premises, like they do in big companies.

To give an only slightly more extreme example, would you allow somebody wearing Google Glass to roam your home?

We’ve got a kid in our house. He loves that he can take photos using my wife’s smartphone. He clicks away merrily. Who knows what he sees?

For the most part, the only leaked footage online is celebrity, since nobody much cares about you and me. But if you did just a minimum of work rummaging around in the clouds and guessing passwords, you could probably find compromising footage of every woman (or man) you know.

But then, you’ll respect their privacy, won’t you? Like they’ll respect yours?

And that’s why I gave this post such a provocative title. Nobody should watch Aubrey Plaza masturbating. But the fact that it’s possible to do so shows why we all need to take care about our own privacy.

The next time somebody brings a smartphone into your home, think of Aubrey Plaza.

The next time you’re planning to upgrade your PC, think of Aubrey Plaza.

The next time a company tells you they’re giving you cloud space ‘for your convenience,’ think of Aubrey Plaza.

Because in a world that is encroachingly public, the only privacy we have left is the private space we’re willing to defend.

Born From Ash-S

Robert Maas’s collection of short stories Born From Ash is available to buy at Amazon.


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