Hacked photos of actress prompt warning for smartphone users

Vince Coglianese Contributor
Font Size:

Nearly nude photos of actress Scarlett Johansson posted online this week prompted security specialists to warn that hackers can steal cellphone pictures over the Internet.

The theft of the pictures, apparently from the actress’ own smartphone, is the latest in a series of hacking attacks against celebrities that led to an FBI investigation, a law enforcement official told The Washington Times.

“The FBI is investigating a person or group responsible for computer intrusions of high-profile figures,” said Arielle B. DeKofsky, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Los Angeles who declined to provide further details.

Nancy Fox, government relations director of the Screen Actors Guild, said, “Actors, particularly celebrities, are prime targets for such crimes.”

“No one should fall victim to such an intrusion into their private life,” she said. “We appreciate that this invasion of privacy is being taken seriously by law enforcement.”

Two photographs of Miss Johansson were posted Wednesday on a large number of websites. In one picture, the actress can be seen in a mirror, naked from behind, photographing herself with her own phone.

Security specialists said the Johansson incident shows how vulnerable photos on cellphones and other mobile devices can be to hackers.

“There are many different ways hackers could have gotten the photos … without ever needing physical access to the phone,” said Thomas Ryanof consulting firm Provide Security. “Obviously, if they were emailed to anyone, you could get them by hacking the account they were sent from.”

Email accounts can be compromised in several ways.

Hackers can reset computer passwords, for instance, if they know certain information about the user that might be publicly available. For example, many password reset security questions ask for the mother’s maiden name.

Hackers can also gain access to devices through special computer programs called “malware,” short for malicious software. The malware is sent to the victim in an email disguised as an attachment. When downloaded, it installs itself on the computer or mobile device, allowing the hacker to create a “backdoor” into the system.

Once inside a personal device or computer, hackers generally can get easy access to anything not encrypted.

Security specialists advise users to choose complex passwords and change them regularly. Computer users also should keep anti-virus and other software regularly updated.

Mr. Ryan said hackers are continually developing different malware kits to exploit newly discovered security flaws in almost every kind of mobile device.

“The largest number of exploits … are aimed at Android devices,” he said, referring to the phone and tablet operating system designed by Google Inc.

He added that many kinds of mobile devices offer backup services, which automatically save pictures and other data to a remote computer so they can be accessed if the device is lost.

“If you know the email address associated with that [backup] account and can compromise the password, you could get [photos from the device] that way,” he said.

The TMZ Hollywood news service said the hackers who stole Miss Johansson’s photos were also behind a series of other cyberthefts of candid photos of young actresses over the past year.

Article originally appeared in The Washington Times