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Paul T Horgan: The naked truth. Intimate photos live forever on the web

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a heterosexual man must be in want of images of unclad women. It was on this basis that a significant and lucrative section of the print media industry was established to cater for this demand. Indeed, a prominent selling point of The Sun, Playboy and the ‘lads’ mags’ Zoo, Loaded, FHM and Nuts was their depictions of women wearing little more than perfume and make-up.

But, wait a minute, something has changed. Playboy has removed glamour models from their magazine. Page 3 of The Sun has gone away. Zoo, Loaded, FHM and Nuts have all closed down. What has happened?

What has not happened is quite clear. Nothing said or done whatsoever by any member of the left-wing feminist lobby has in any way affected these decisions. They have been wasting their time. Perhaps they had nothing better to do with themselves.

When Caroline Lucas swanned around the Palace of Westminster in a t-shirt with the slogan ‘No More Page 3‘ back in 2013, it was a misuse of good fabric and stopped her being called by Mr Speaker at PMQs. Her protest was directly aimed at The Sun, ignoring the fact that the Daily Star also depicts women in similar states of undress. Her 1980s-style attire was in essence a gesture against left-wing hate-figure Rupert Murdoch and nothing more. It has been argued that the protest against The Sun’s editorial policies actually prolonged how long that newspaper published pictures of Lacey Banghard, Danielle Sharp, Kim Acourt, Sylvia Barrie, Louise Cliffe, Lucy Collett in states of undress. Similarly the Lose the Lads Mags campaign had no real effect. By the time this campaign got going, these publications were dying on their feet. The campaigners were trying to steal the credit for the closures from the buying habits of the public.

What did them all in was not left-wing posturing and virtue-signalling. It was naked capitalism.

The situation was summed up quite succinctly by Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive, when he stated when talking about Playboy’s Playmates, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.” Passé and unprofitable. People had stopped buying the magazines, but not because of a mass feminist consciousness raising. The business model was no longer sustainable. As you are probably more than well aware by now, what happened was the internet.

There is an internet meme called Rule 34, which states “If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions”. And the internet is where the readership has gone. There may come a time when some of the people who campaigned against the popular and relatively tasteful printed media depictions of unclothed femininity may look on their heyday with unqualified nostalgia. Cyberspace has limited rules compared to newspaper and magazines, making it positively Hogarthian by comparison. Or is it Bosch? But I digress.

One driver of online nudity has been the exponential increase in quality and lowering in price of image capture equipment. Where previously it was necessary to have an expensive array of cameras and lights, together with the time and ability to develop, print and distribute the images, and the cash to do it all, the same job can now be performed by the kind of phone that nearly everyone carries in their pocket in seconds. That is technological progress.

The ubiquity of the technology has led to a new surge in voyeurism. Peeping Toms these days do not have to even been in the vicinity of their victims when they can simply plant the kind of devices previously available only to intelligence and security agencies. Nowadays these can even be bought in Tottenham Court Road.

A new crime has been developed based on ‘revenge porn’ where the perpetrator will post nude images of a person, usually a woman, onto the internet without their permission, and will also include the person’s name and contact details. Taking the images down is several magnitudes harder than posting them up.

People have also been duped into sending nude images of themselves to persons with whom their only contact has been online. The resultant shame when these intimate images are widely distributed has been enough to end careers and lives. A married Conservative MP was the victim of such a scam by a newspaper ‘in the public interest’ when he was persuaded to start ‘sexting’ – sending intimate images of himself – to a male reporter masquerading as an attractive woman. The MP had never actually met the fictional woman in person, but whose own pictures appealed to him to the extent that he disgraced himself. He stood down last year. Due to the persistence of the internet, his folly will never be forgotten, no matter how many times he deletes items from his entry in Wikipedia.

There is also the phenomenon of some women, being rather pleased with their current appearance in the buff, using a smartphone to take pictures of themselves, presumably so they may look back on themselves in later decades with some form of pride. What they do not realise is that the smartphone is actually the latest iteration of handheld computing device technology that first saw the light of day with the Psion organiser back in 1984. The important difference is that these new devices are almost permanently connected to the internet and that the data they hold, based on user preference, may be automatically uploaded to the ‘cloud’.

What is the ‘cloud’? This is simply a euphemism for ‘stuff you do really not need to worry about’. Behind this abstraction is usually networking, storage and processing power on racks of computers held in the name of the user’s online account at a massive datacentre on a business park many miles away.

Since the core business of a datacentre is the avoidance of data loss and rapid access, once there, the data may never disappear. This also means that the data is no longer on the smartphone and may fall victim to unauthorised access by the determined. This has happened to at least one Hollywood actress, whose stolen images were widely distributed last year.

Another consideration is that the owners of these smartphones are not in complete control of their machines. In computing, the superuser is a user account who has absolute rights to manage the computing environment they operate in. In modern smartphones, this role is usually reserved for the phone’s manufacturer or some such who provides the online service for the phone, including providing updates, new apps and preventing unauthorised operations like loading bootleg software. The actual owner is just an ordinary user with subordinate rights of access and control to a device that is in their legal possession. People are taking nude images of themselves using devices over which they may not have absolute control.

In the above two examples, imagine how the same task would have to be performed in the nineteen seventies. Essentially it would have had to involve the use of an instant camera of some kind. Polaroid used to make these, but it has now been driven out of of the instant film business by the new technology. Then the developed picture would be sent by post to the interested party, or in the case of the proud woman, stored in a photo album or the like in a secret location.

The fate of the image after that is anyone’s guess. In our nineteen seventies scenario, whoever receives or takes the picture would print a million copies of it and display it on every street corner, or simply have a high-circulation newspaper publish it, and forty years ago nearly everyone bought a newspaper. Such scenarios never happened in the good old days. The closest we got was intrusive journalism using cameras with telephoto lenses.

It gets worse. Uncouth boyfriends are now required to furnish visual proof of their amorous conquests to their mates to validate boasting of prowess in a ‘pics-or it didn’t happen’ culture. They will pressure their girlfriends to obtain the requisite images as a consequence. ‘Sexting’ is a social habit that shows no signs of diminishing. The Telegraph agony aunt this week recounts a story of a man who is obsessed with taking furtive nude pictures of his girlfriend.

Once stored online, the images are forever. The internet was designed to keep information flowing during a thermonuclear war. Datacentres keep backups at remote locations and have disaster-recovery scenarios. Data loss is seen as a mortal sin.

Even if a person has not had nude pictures placed in the public domain, their head can be matched to the body of a person who has using image-editing packages. Indeed this used to be headline news in the Sunday Sport newspaper in the mid-1990s. The power of the image-editing packages cannot be underestimated. An entirely tasteful example of the power of these programs can be seen here. Programs like these are available for free.

What next? Instead of matching the image of a person’s head to a nude body, there may be developments in the technology used for motion-capture in computer animations to make a ‘best guess’ as to the nude form of a fully-clothed person based on the image or video of that person. While people are going to prison for posting online nude pictures without the consent of the subject, the Prime Minister also announced that he wants to reduce prison numbers.

The persistence of information uploaded to the internet does mean that this problem can only increase. Women can mitigate this by refusing to be filmed naked by anyone, including themselves, until the technology matures. Just because the technology has changed, people’s behaviour does not have to.

Skintone detection and facial recognition may be the key to preventing online shame, where automated systems validate images that are recognised to be potentially indecent so that the uploader has to make a legal declaration that is backed by provable identity. But that would require that the anonymity on the internet is eroded, and there is a market for anonymity on the internet. It appears that any idiot can set up a web site. Perhaps there needs to be a spot of planning permission.

There is also the ‘dark web’ to be considered. It seems strange that arrays of computing and communications hardware could physically exist in an environment designed to track their appearance on the internet and still be secret. But that is the case. The ‘dark web’ should be dismantled.

The immortality and accessibility of data on the internet will only increase unless intelligent measures are applied. The ‘information superhighway’ needs road signs that includes ‘no entry’. Free speech should not be allowed to ride roughshod over human dignity, which is what is happening now. It now only takes a few seconds to be ashamed for eternity. And it may not be enough to never allow yourself to be photographed naked. Technology seems to be on the side of the demands of the heterosexual male. The silence of the left-wing feminists on this highly-relevant issue is deafening. The seem to be preoccupied with transgender issues which have replaced Page 3 as a cause célèbre. Perhaps they need to change out of their t-shirts. Hopefully in private, while they still can. Or they can get out of the way and remain silent while others take up the issue, which may be better.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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