Anonymous users of 4Chan posted what they claimed to be intimate images of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence / Getty Images

 

For years, its infamous “random” message board has featured a stream of graphic images of sex and violence, but it has taken the posting of private photographs allegedly purloined from around 100 celebrities to put 4Chan under the legal spotlight.

The website, originally created by a 15-year-old boy in his bedroom, is now the subject of an FBI investigation, after hosting what is thought to be the biggest ever leak of hacked celebrity nudes.

Over the weekend, anonymous 4Chan users posted intimate images on the online bulletin board from what they claimed were dozens of female stars, such as Jennifer Lawrence and the swimsuit model-turned-actor Kate Upton. Several Britons are also alleged to have been among the victims, including the former Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay.

4Chan has long been thought of as the web’s Wild West, where anonymous users can post controversial material without fear of their identities being exposed – but it began as a more innocent endeavour. In 2003, New York the teenager Christopher Poole created the site as a place for fans of Japanese manga and anime to share images and opinions.

Mr Poole, who operates under the online username “moot”, has said making 4Chan anonymous “wasn’t a principled decision”, but that over time he came to appreciate the importance of online privacy and freedom. “As a 15-year-old, I wasn’t too concerned with a lot of the things I really stand for now,” he told MIT Technology Review in 2010.

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Christopher Poole created the site aged 15 as a place for manga fans (Getty)

Today, 4Chan is an all-purpose anonymous forum, with bulletin boards covering an array of subjects. Its format remains rudimentary, but 4Chan users have been responsible for generating celebrated internet cultural trends such as “Lolcats” and “Rickrolling”, where unsuspecting users would be duped into watching the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up”.

When the personal email account of the US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was hacked in 2008, the culprit posted the emails on 4Chan first. The site is also said to have spawned the international hacker collective Anonymous. 4Chan claims to have well over 20 million visitors per month, and in April 2009 Mr Poole was voted the world’s most influential person in a web survey by Time magazine .

Though much of 4Chan’s content is innocuous, its popular “random” or “/b/” board is routinely home to its most controversial images and videos. The posts are all but unpoliced, aside from a collectively agreed ban on child pornography. The /b/ board is decidedly male-dominated, with users who identify themselves as female being told to post a picture of their breasts, or leave. “The power lies in the community to dictate its own standards,” Mr Poole told The New York Times in 2008.

After 4Chan users began posting the intimate celebrity pictures on Saturday, the images soon spread to Reddit, the so-called “front page of the internet”. On Monday, the FBI said it was looking into the matter. A spokesman said: “The FBI is aware of the allegations concerning computer intrusions and the unlawful release of material involving high-profile individuals, and is addressing the matter.”

It remains unclear exactly how the photos were obtained and collated before they appeared on 4Chan, but Apple is “actively investigating” reports that the images were originally stolen by hackers from the firm’s iCloud service. “We take user privacy very seriously and are investigating this report,” the Apple spokeswoman Nat Kerris said.

In 2012, Christopher Chaney, the Florida man known as the “Hollywood hacker”, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for acquiring and disseminating private materials from the email accounts of stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Mila Kunis. Some celebrity victims suggested on Twitter that the alleged nudes were fake, but representatives for Lawrence and Upton appeared to admit that the images were stolen. “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 spokeswoman Liz Mahoney said.

In a statement, Upton’s lawyer described the leak as an “outrageous violation” of the star’s privacy, and vowed to pursue those responsible “to the fullest extent possible”. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, another victim of the leaks, said on Twitter, “To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.”

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