The FBI is investigating reports that the online theft of private nude photographs of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton was the work of an underground hacking and picture trading ring rather than a lone individual.
The images that been leaked online so far are only believed to be a small portion of a huge collection of such explicit photographs that a group of unidentified hackers has been amassing for months.
An anonymous poster on the 4chan website, where some of the photographs have been released, referred to an "underground celeb n00d-trading ring" (using web slang for “nude”) that “has existed for years”.
The Deadspin sports website has now revealed that one of its readers alerted it to the alleged existence of a large cache of stolen celebrity private photographs “a few weeks ago”.
The Gawker website has also established that anonymous users were last week discussing a collection of "explicit vids and pics" on a thread dedicated to Jennifer Lawrence on AnonIB, a 4chan offshoot.
And the Twitter micro-blogging site has suspended the account of a user who, just hours before the first Lawrence photographs emerged, spoke of "nudes of like 20 celebs" for which a celebrity website was allegedly offering cash to hackers.
An anonymous poster who claiming to be involved in the thefts wrote on AnonIB that the hacking had been "several months" in the making. And one of the victims, the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has since said that the stolen photographs of her were old and had already been deleted by her.
This trail of online chatter has fuelled the belief of investigators that the theft of the photographs had been underway for months and was the work of several different hackers who were co-operating and trading the images.
Gawker reported that one 4chan poster even described a years-old "ring" of celebrity photograph traders, a group that could only be joined by providing your own nude images – effectively “buying your way in”, the website said.
The hacker or hackers who obtained more than 100 nude photographs of some of Hollywood’s most famous female stars may have accessed the images via a “vulnerability” in security system for Apple’s iCloud wireless data storage service, technology experts have claimed.
Apple looking into the hack, spokeswoman Natalie Kerris said. "We take user privacy very seriously and are actively investigating this report," she said.
The FBI will take the lead in the investigation, Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said the agency was "aware of the allegations concerning computer intrusions and the unlawful release of material involving high profile individuals, and is addressing the matter".
Jennifer Lawrence's publicist Liz Mahoney called the leaked photographs "a flagrant violation of privacy" and said the actress had asked US authorities to prosecute whoever is posting the photos.