Ashley Madison’s very human cost

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When Ashley Madison, the online dating website that’s primarily pitched at people who are already in a committed relationship, was hacked last month, the news was greeted with an inordinate amount of Schadenfreude.

While this wasn’t the universal response – one naturally presumes that a large chunk of the website’s client base went into a cold sweat upon hearing about the hack – a lot of onlookers began rubbing their hands with unbridled glee. The fact that the hackers responsible for the breach, Impact Team, then threatened to release the user data it had collected unless the site’s parent company, Avid Life Media (ALM) took it offline only stoked the fires of general delight further.

This merriment reached nuclear levels this week when Impact Team made good on its threat and posted a magnet link to the stolen data on a Tor site. Finally, Ashley Madison, a site built on the foundations of betrayal and broken hearts, and its philandering clientele were about to receive their deserved comeuppance.

Well, that was the received wisdom, at any rate. The reality is slightly more complicated than that. While Impact Team’s security breach makes for salacious reading, it’s worth remembering that a lot of people’s lives will be adversely affected by it – and some of them will be ruined.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Ashley Madison; alongside the fact that, unlike Tinder or OKCupid, Ashley Madison courted adulterers as its core market – the site’s tagline still reads ‘Life is short. Have an affair” – the site seemed to revel in its notoriety in its PR campaigns. Then there’s the small matter, revealed by Impact Team’s hack, that Ashley Madison seems to have also charged users for a ‘Full Delete’ service that it never provided. But the culpability of Ashley Madison and ALM isn’t the whole story.

First off, it’s worth noting that not every single person who signed up an account with Ashley Madison was (or is) in a long term relationship. One should also consider the fact that some users of those who are (or were) married or in a committed relationship created an account and used it with the full knowledge of their partner – open relationships and swinging being a little more commonplace in the information age.

In other words, not every single user whose profile was made public and is now easily searchable was cheating on their other half. Indeed, only a very small number of those who signed up ever spent money with the site, and more often than not it was to try and get their data deleted. But the fact that they’ve now been outed as having once given Ashley Madison their details – or had someone sign up using their name – could very well result in them being judged and shunned by friends and relatives. They could face ostracism and isolation for actually having done nothing wrong.

It’s guilt by association.

The consequences of the Ashley Madison data dump aren’t just personal – in some instances there are professional ramifications too. In the United States, adultery is illegal for those in the employ of the US military, punishable by a year in confinement and a dishonourable discharge. Since emails from the .mil domain have shown up in the leak, the US military is now conducting an investigation. Heads will likely roll.

Ashley Madison account holders in other fields of employ will likely also suffer. CEOs, politicians, brand ambassadors and any employee whose job places them in the public eye could find themselves fired. While other employees may find that signing up to Ashley Madison isn’t a sackable offence in their place of work, that won’t stop some of their colleagues or boss taking a rather dim view of them. They may also find their career prospects have irreparably stalled.

Impact Group’s data release may even have fatal consequences in some quarters.

In a recent post on Reddit entitled “I May Get Stoned to Death for Gay Sex (Gay Man from Saudi Arabia Who Used Ashley Madison for Hookups.)”, one user revealed how he’d used his own name in his account on Ashley Madison to meet men based in the United States.

“I am from a country where homosexuality carries the death penalty.  I BEG you all to spread this message. Perhaps the hackers will take notice of it, and then, I can tell them to (at the very least) exercise discretion in their information dump (i.e. leave the single gay arab guy out of it),” he wrote. “As of now, I plan on leaving the Kingdom and never returning once I have the $ for a plane ticket. Though I have no place to go, no real friends, and no job.”

As Business Insider has pointed out, the Ashley Madison hack is by no means the biggest data breach that’s occurred recently, but it is likely to have further reaching consequences than its contemporaries. Given the fallout that’s likely to occur – and the number of innocents who are likely to get caught in the crossfire – Impact Group’s handling of the leak looks more than a little irresponsible.

As was the case with the release of sensitive material back in 2010 by WikiLeaks, while a lot of the information contained in the Impact Group’s data dump is in the public interest, a lot of it is private information that has no business in the public domain and the consequences of the leak aren’t completely positive.

It’s slightly ironic, then, that a group claiming the moral high ground over a company it’s accused, among other things, of spreading misery into the lives of strangers seems to have done just that.

The whole episode feels endemic of the dehumanising effect the online space can have on its participants. We’ve never before had more means of communication with our fellow humans than we do now – in the forms of bulletin boards, forums, chatrooms, social media and, yes, dating websites – but the sheer volume of platforms available and the distance at which they put us from each other seems to result in us forgetting that, on the end of every exchange, is an actual person instead of a handle and rather cute gif.

Those taking any pleasure in the fallout from the Ashley Madison hack should look to themselves; not everyone being thrown through this meat grinder deserved it and even those who behaved poorly are still human beings whose lives are being torn apart.

We shouldn’t be enjoying this. We really shouldn’t.

[Image – CC Derek Gavey]