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Are celebs the newest target for hackers?

John D. Sutter, CNN
Actress Scarlett Johansson and other celebs allegedly have had nude photos stolen from their phones or computers by hackers.
Actress Scarlett Johansson and other celebs allegedly have had nude photos stolen from their phones or computers by hackers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hackers have been stealing and posting photos of naked celebrities
  • It's unclear who is behind the attacks and what their motives are
  • Experts say these attacks are "beneath" big-name hacking groups such as Anonymous
  • The attacks aren't especially new, but they appear to be escalating

(CNN) -- The naked celebrities seem to be everywhere lately.

Last week, hackers allegedly stole nude photos from actress Scarlett Johansson and then plastered them all over the Internet.

Before then it was the rapper Kreayshawn, who wrote on her blog that her Twitter account was hacked in August when naked photos of her showed up there.

In March, Vanessa Hudgens of "High School Musical" underwent a similar ordeal after photos were reportedly stolen from her Gmail account.

Finally, in December, police in Germany alleged two young men had used computer-hacking skills to get access to the e-mail accounts and photos of more than 50 celebrities, according to Britain's The Telegraph, including the likes of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha.

Scarlett Johansson's nude photos?

In the wake of all this juicy Hollywood hoopla, people have started to assume these photo leaks are the newest front in the so-called "hacktivist" wars, as waged by big-name hacking rings such as Anonymous and LulzSec. Those groups have claimed responsibility for taking down bank and government websites.

But security experts said connections between celeb hacks and groups such as Anonymous are thin or nonexistent.

Such groups "would feel this kind of thing is beneath them," said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, a computer security company.

"It's obviously to gain media exposure, right?" said Kevin Mitnick, a hacker turned security consultant and author of "Ghost in the Wires." "It's like everyone is trying to one-up Anonymous and one-up LulzSec. So somehow celebrities are becoming a target."

The celebrity hacks aren't sophisticated, he said.

He added: "It's not surprising to me. It's, like, old news."

The first real case of a celebrity attack was in 2005 when hackers logged into Paris Hilton's phone and stole photos of her, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, another computer security company. Those hackers reportedly were able to break into Hilton's phone by correctly guessing the not-so-secret answer to her security question, which was "tinkerbell," the name of her pet Chihuahua.

The real issue here, the researchers said, is the prevalence, and accessibility of, nude photos.

If celebrities didn't take and store nude photos of themselves on their phones or on computers, they wouldn't be stolen and published online.

"Everyone has a camera on them all the time, so the tendency to send something kinky to that hot guy you're trying to date might be too great," said Cluley, who, coincidentally enough, writes a blog called "Naked Security" for Sophos.

His advice: "If you see someone pointing a camera at you and you're not wearing any clothes, go and hide behind the wardrobe."

Who is behind the recent string of stolen celebrity photos -- and how exactly they got them -- remains unclear. The FBI office in Los Angeles has opened an investigation into the incidents of computer hacking but declined to elaborate on the cases involved.

Some people have pointed to a supposedly new hacker ring called Hollywood Leaks, which operates a Twitter feed to discuss these sorts of incidents.

On Monday, the group wrote that it didn't have anything to do with the Johansson photos: "WE DID NOT LEAK THE SCARLETT JOHANSSON PICS, WE WOULD HAVE RELEASED IT HERE FIRST! So stop the speculating!" the group wrote.

"I don't think there's a clear link" between the celebrity hacks and hacking groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec, said Hypponen, "but obviously these groups are amoebas, and they change shape and they're so different from each other."

Their motives are also unclear.

As a teenager, Mitnick said he used to make a game out of hunting down celebrity phone numbers and then calling them. (He remembers saying this to Lucille Ball, whose number he found: "Hey, Lucy, oh hi. I just wanted to let you know I'm a really big fan of your show. I won't call you again -- don't worry." And then he hung up).

He sees the celebrity photo stealing as an extension of this sort of pranksterism.

The hackers are likely out for money, said Cluley, since these photos could be sold to tabloid or adult websites.

Or celebs could be leaking the photos to get attention.

"I think we have to consider that as a possibility," he said.

Flip that argument around, and you'll notice hackers have become a popular scapegoat for celebrities and politicians who spill information by accident.

Remember former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner? When nude photos of the New York congressman surfaced on Twitter, "he initially blamed a hacker," Cluley said. "It wasn't so much the picture of him in his pants that did him in. it was more the cover-up." Weiner later admitted to sending the photos himself and resigned.

If one thing's clear, it's that this kind of celebrity hack isn't going away soon.

"It's going to escalate," Hypponen said. "After people saw what happened to Scarlett Johansson, you can damn well bet there are people out there who are trying to do the same thing to other pretty actresses."

Well, at least until the pretty actresses stop taking nude photos.

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