by: Chris Thompson
This week, the personal data of 37 million Ashley Madison users was published to the Internet, and the fallout from this “crime” has only just begun….
If you break into a website that prides itself as a place to help married individuals find people with whom they could have affairs and steal all the data on its users, is it a crime? According to the law, the answer is yes. But according to the morals and ethics of many who view these “cheater” websites as plagues and a scourge to the fine institution of Marriage, the answer becomes a bit more vague. So when one of these controversial websites, the gold standard Ashley Madison, was hacked a few months ago by a group calling itself the Impact Squad, and the contents of its servers, including damning info on all of its users, were posted this week to the web, many were not so quick to pass judgement on those that perpetrated the crime. For it illustrates once again, the growing use and power of ‘Hacktivism’ as a tool to implement societal change, and brings the issue of privacy in these digital times once again, back into the spotlight.
As a controversial forum for seduction and infidelity, Ashley Madison has two doors, the front one and the back. The front one, on the website’s main page, offers “100% Discreet Service,” with the image of red-lipped brunette holding her finger up to her lips as if to suggest a naughty secret. It’s almost daring you to have an affair. To be “bad.” But Ashley Madison’s back door, the one written in fine-printed, wordy legalese, that they don’t overtly emphasize says, “We cannot ensure the security or privacy of information you provide through the Internet.” So the fact that Ashley Madison was hacked and the sensitive data of all of its 37 million users, including those that paid for a premiere membership with a credit card, was made public should not come as a surprise to anyone. It was bound to happen. A website like Ashley Madison simply cannot exist in the light, promoting its pro-adultery agenda, boasting that it’s the most successful website for finding an affair, and not expect to get hacked. Yes, it is damning for those individuals caught up in this breach, and we will get into the implications of this soon enough. But it is important, I feel, to make a point here, one voiced much better by Tim Cook, the current President of Apple. In a blistering speech critical of many of his competitors and contrary to what most governments currently want in regards to privacy on the web, Cook boldly stated that we don’t live in a post-privacy world right now when it comes to the Internet. Privacy still is a matter of life and death Cook emphasized, and he followed that up by stating that “we owe [the user] nothing less than the best protections that we can possibly provide by harnessing the technology at our disposal.” There are numerous, well-researched and well-argued articles in respected magazines and newspapers written by talented individuals all warning us of this very same idea. That the absolute privacy of users data matters. That we should give careful consideration to the information we choose to share with corporations and businesses like Google or Facebook or even, yes, Ashley Madison. The Internet these days, contrary to an onslaught of governmental and corporate claims, is very much not a private space and too many individuals take this for granted. It seems like almost weekly we are learning about another company or another government organization that has seen its servers and its sensitive data compromised and made available to those who would definitely choose to do harm with it. Ashley Madison is just the latest victim to stare down the barrel of these hackers digital gun and have their valuables robbed and it certainly won’t be the last. The question we must ask ourselves is two fold: Have we not been warned? and When did we so blindly decide to surrender our trust to entities like Ashley Madison? I know I’m not the first person to sound this alarm and I wonder what it’s going to take for people to really begin to listen.
According to multiple reports, the data contained in the Ashley Madison hack is quite revealing and extremely specific. Too specific, I’m sure some would argue, especially those caught up in this digital catastrophe. With a cry that “cheating dirtbags do not deserve anonymity,” the Impact Squad hackers released a 9.7 gigabyte, text-only file named “Time’s Up!” to the Dark Web, a backwater of the Internet only accessible with special software (Update: another 20 gigabytes was just released as I am writing this!). Due to the efforts of several creative individuals, the massive data file is now readily available online to us all and has become easily searchable. Database search sites have sprung up almost overnight, playing on Man’s innate curiosity about those around him and what has been learned so far from these searches is fascinating in some aspects, and downright scary in others. The file contains among other things, the names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card details, ages and detailed sexual fantasies of all involved. That last part is the most unnerving aspect of the hack. By simply entering an email address or name into the search bar of one of these sites you will know if the individual held an account with Ashley Madison, and more importantly if you are married to the individual, what their sexual desires, fantasies and motivations for joining the site are.
A world map showing the locations of all the Ashley Madison cheaters.
What has been learned so far about Ashley Madison’s users is startling in its specifics while also belying the stupidly and gross ineptitude of a section of its members. Already, almost 10,000 users have been shown to have listed government or even military email address when signing up for an account. The concerning aspect to this, and this is where the existence of the data and the decision to make it public becomes dangerous, is that it is a prosecutable offense and a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice under Article 134 to commit adultery. The penalty for this violation, if convicted, is up to a year of confinement and a dishonorable discharge. So this is where the implications of people’s online activities begins to come up against the reality of society’s rules and law. Where Ashley Madison’s blatantly advertised “privacy” and “discreteness” for its users comes in direct conflict with the military’s immutable rules. The very fact that by simply joining the site, and using a .mil or .gov email address to do so, could potentially, in a worst case scenario, get your fired from your governmental job or dishonorably discharged from the military, not to mention fuck-up your marriage is now a distinct possibility. But it isn’t just governmental entities or military personnel that have been exposed in the data breach. Trusted educational institutions like Yale and Harvard have had members use their email address on Ashley Madison. The Vatican and the United Nations have fallen under the gun as well. And employees from such corporate behemoths as JP Morgan, Bank of America, Boeing and Sony have seen their names appear on Ashley Madison’s lists. Now a point should be made here that a large majority of the email addresses have been dismissed already as false, as Ashley Madison doesn’t verify its addresses. But with a number like 37 million being batted around as the upper end of how many users had their data stolen, that still leaves a lot of governmental, military and corporate institutions and its now certainly nervous members in the lurch.
Digging even deeper into the data is when we begin to uncover the sexual fantasies of the users involved, and their sexual likes and dislikes. The database reveals if a person was married and seeking “one night stands” or married and a “male seeking a male.” It also lists if the user was say, interested in “spanking” or “role-playing” or “being submissive/slave.” Being able to search for Ashley Madison members seeking homosexual encounters is when you begin to consider that in some countries homosexuality is still illegal, and in many cases punishable by imprisonment or even, sadly, death (I’m fucking looking at you Saudi Arabia!). Ashley Madison’s users exist on a global scale and in those seventy-nine countries where homosexuality is still illegal things begin to get a bit scary for its outed users. To think that some poor individual could in a worst case scenario, lose their livelihood, their freedom or even their life, all because they joined a website is frightening as hell. It just goes to show you that ALL our actions have consequences, especially the ones we make on the Internet. No website is impenetrable. Especially one’s that openly exist as a forum to commit adultery against the one you supposedly love and adore.
So as the implications from exposing a large group of individuals who publically the media will call “cheaters,” but may also be known to you as friend or brother or dad or even, spouse, begins to unfold, I’ll leave you with one very important piece of advice: Be smart with how you conduct yourself online. Be really fucking smart. Relationships can be complicated, with many different moving parts. But if you’re desperate enough or lonely enough or whatever it is that’s affecting you to the point that you’re going to cheat on the person that you love, then don’t join a fucking website to get it done. The Internet doesn’t care about you, and it never will. It’s just as simple as that. Is it wrong that Ashley Madison’s users personal information has been exposed? That their private fantasies are out there for all to behold? Is it wrong that because of this hack, people’s lives or their livelihood may be at stake? Hell no! These people are cheaters! the voices of the torch-carrying, overly-judgemental mob will shout across the blogosphere and the 24-hour news cycle. But these are just the voices of knee-jerk reactionaries. Voices steeped in the duality of wrong or right. But the world doesn’t work that way anymore. The world is more like fifty shades of grey when it comes to things like the Internet and our motivations for doing what we do online. I think the answer as to whether Ashley Madison’s members share in any of the guilt or deserve our fury is a bit more subtle. A little more in-between, and to pass judgement on the entirety of Ashley Madison’s users without an understanding of each individual’s motivations to join, is a dangerous route to take. History has shown us time and time again what the dangers of ignoring the facts can bring. Sure, there are some members on Ashley Madison who joined for the sole intention of cheating on their wives. But there are also members on the site who joined out of curiosity or voyeurism or any number of reasons that I simply do not comprehend. Are we so quick to throw them into the fire with the adulterers as well? I certainly hope not, for their only real crime, is being dumb enough to put their trust in an infidelity website in the first place. Look, Ashley Madison’s message is this: Life is short. Have an affair. But in reality, they should probably change their message to: Life is short. And now, you’re fucked.