Anonymous posters to online message boards boasted of having nude images of scores of female stars including Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, pop icon Rihanna and top model Kate Upton.
Early reports suggested hackers had “ripped” private images from tech giant Apple’s iCloud online data storage, but the firm made no immediate comment and other services may have been targeted.
Some of the pictures had previously been circulated on message forums, and others appeared fake, but some major stars expressed outrage at a new breach and threatened legal action.
“This is a flagrant violation of privacy. The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence,” Lawrence’s agent told entertainment media.
By late Sunday, Twitter had begun suspending accounts that linked to the Lawrence photos, tech news site Mashable reported.
Among the scores of celebrities whose pictures were allegedly stolen were Scarlett Johansson, Winona Ryder, Avril Lavigne, Amber Heard, Hayden Panettiere and Hope Solo.
“These so called nudes of me are FAKE people. Let me nip this in the bud right now. *pun intended*” she tweeted.
A spokesperson for actress and pop star Ariana Grande told BuzzFeed that images said to be of her are “completely fake.”
– ‘Creepy effort’ –
But horror movie actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead confirmed that some of her private pictures were in circulation and condemned those who stole them and who circulated them.
“To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves,” she tweeted.
“Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked.”
The scale of the breach became apparent on Sunday when users of the 4chan message board, a diverse online community that has been criticized in the past for misogyny, began posting pictures.
Some more mainstream news and entertainment sites took up the story — and some linked to the images before taking them down amid legal threats and public outrage.
According to a report on news and gossip site Gawker, users of a AnonIB — an anonymous photo-sharing platform focused on stolen images of women — have been boasting of a hack since last week.
Tech news site The Next Web reported what it said was evidence that hackers had found a weakness in Apple’s “Find my iPhone” service, an app that tracks lost or stolen handsets.
Apple has patched the alleged hole, the report said, but not before news of it spread in the hacker community, allowing unscrupulous strangers to access private online data.
The scale of the hack, and the targeting of women in the public eye, quickly revived the debate on social media about privacy concerns and about misogyny on the Internet.
The scandal also posed a public relations challenge to tech companies, who have been marketing online storage like iCloud, DropBox or GoogleDrive as a safe haven for users’ private data.
Several popular tech blogs marked the story by providing advice on storing private data safely, by using advanced encryption and two-step password identification or by keeping it offline.