One of the features of post-Renaissance art was the use of a fig leaf or piece of gauze to cover the ruder parts of the subject’s anatomy. It was a Church-led reaction to the freedom of expression which the Italian masters had exercised and lasted right through the Victorian era, when even piano legs might be covered up, until the mid-1960s, when the sexual revolution swept such prudery away again.
In the Internet era, it seems absurd to imagine pictures would be censored in this way. Yet, paradoxically, that is almost what individuals seem to believe about their own personal images. Trust in the technology providers, especially Apple, has reached such a level that even the most intimate items are trusted to their devices and services. Which means that the private domain is now considered to cover online service providers, just as it does the physical bedroom.
The latest mobile phones and tablets are not designed for extensive storage - instead, they offer to upload files to a cloud-based storage service. Indeed, this is ultimately the business model of the future, with subscribers likely to end up paying as much for access to their own content as they do for calls and data traffic.
So consumers are demonstrating a tremendous degree of faith that a commercial organisation will protect their modesty, neither allowing data breaches or snooping. At the same time, they are expressing a very new idea about where privacy begins and ends and how such highly sensitive documents will be distributed.
Readers of this column will no doubt be relieved to learn that I have never made a sex tape or used my mobile phone to take nude pictures. As a non-digital native, had I ever engaged in such activity, it would have involved Polaroid photos that would then have been stored in a shoe box under lock and key at home.
To steal them, somebody would have needed to break in and not then been distracted by any electronic items, jewellery or cash which they might find en route to that box. In the unlikely event of wanting to share them, I would have had to hand over those photos physically.
To a new generation of consumers, however, having an audience and sharing life events is a central component of self-expression. Much as the original Renaissance painters saw nothing shameful in the human body, so many young people routinely document their own nudity and share it with partners.
Technology has encouraged this behaviour and virtually all of the innovation happening online has it as a central assumption. But many service providers within this space have not really kept up with the extent to which this is happening and put suitable protection in place. Did Apple’s iCloud set out to become a repository for nude selfies? Unlikely, but it must now think how this changes its responsibilities and security demands.
Equally, the recent leak should cause some consumers to think more carefully about exactly where they are letting intimate information be stored. Just as no home is entirely safe from burglary, no online storage service can ever be 100 per cent hack or leak-proof. It is just that the likelihood of the latter event has become greater and the subsequent potential for embarrassment much higher. In such a scenario, who will protect your modesty?