The personal fallout from the disclosure of a client list stolen from the Ashley Madison website for adulterers will involve embarrassment, career destruction, and wrecked marriages.
What does it all mean in context? What does it say about society that a website dedicated to helping people cheat on their spouses racked up over 30 million clients?
Obviously it’s an example of dishonesty and infidelity on a breathtaking scale. For all the swinging “progressive” talk about how Ashley Madison could be seen as a positive force, or even an instrument for improving the quality of marriage by helping us get over our sexual hangups – much of that talk emanating from the purveyors of the site, of course – what actually happened when that client list leaked out? Shame. Deep, deep waves of shame, rolling across the globe.
The mostly male clients of the site ran for the hills, crawled under rocks, contacted their lawyers, and tried to hire digital hit men to zap the database. If we’re feeling charitable, we can take this as a good sign. Progressivism has not erased every shred of common sense and morality just yet.
The success of Ashley Madison involved a great deal of dishonesty, and not just the primal dishonesty of using a website to cheat on spouses. One of the primary points made by the Impact Team hackers who stole this data is that Ashley Madison was a ripoff operation – it lied about the paid service that would supposedly erase all traces of departing clients, and it lied about how many women were involved in this sexual free-fall. Strip away all the phone accounts, and the clientele revealed by this data dump is 95 percent male. These men were paying a lot of money to roam upon hunting grounds that provided them with very little game.
The Washington Post noticed another grimly amusing example of dishonesty: a great many of the users lied about how old they were. “There are over 36 million different birthdates registered with the site. And, if everyone is telling the truth, one out of every 12 Ashley Madison members was born on New Year’s Day,” the Post notes wryly.
January 1st was the default birthdate for new profiles, as is the case on many websites, so many users evidently only troubled themselves to change the year. A sizable portion of the users who did bother to change the month and date either allowed it to default to the first day of the chosen month, or made lazy use of keyboard shortcuts to choose the same number for month and day, like 2/2, 3/3, or 4/4. Quite a few jokers decided to enter Valentine’s Day as their birthdays. And, unsurprisingly, they don’t seem to have been scrupulous about entering the correct year and divulging their correct ages.
Jennifer Weiner at the New York Times picks up on another critique made by the hackers: the people who used Ashley Madison were, in the main, nitwits. A much-cited statistic about the AM database is that some 15,000 of the email addresses were government or military. That doesn’t mean 15,000 of the users worked for the government. It means 15,000 of them – minus a probably considerable number of fakes – were foolish enough to provide their .gov or .mil address when signing up for an adultery website.
The actual number of government employees counted among the ranks of Ashley Madison users is probably much higher. The smarter clients didn’t use email addresses that revealed exactly which state or federal agency they worked for. It’s not exactly difficult to create a free, discreet, disposable email address for yourself in the Two Thousand Teens. Ashley Madison wasn’t validating these email addresses in any way.
There are also some goofy details emerging from the payment data, such as customers making highly unwise choices of billing address and payment method. The UK Register notes that many of them used their work addresses. Some of them are police officers. Many of the users created their profiles with applications that fed the precise GPS coordinates of their location into the system.
The very notion of using a paid website to find infidelity playmates is arguably as stupid as it is dishonest, especially when it appears quite a few wealthy men with a lot to lose were among the paying customers. The sales pitch for this thing was incredibly successful, given that the actual amount of adultery taking place among a 95 percent male user base was probably rather modest. Some of the clients probably did more diligence before buying a $50 videogame or ordering a pizza.
One other notable conclusion to draw from the Ashley Madison hack is a worrying one that goes far beyond the moral issue at hand. This was a theft of data, after all – an invasion of privacy that could be replicated for other reasons against far less reprehensible victims. Avid Life Media, the owner of Ashley Madison, uses their every public statement to emphasize that they were the victims of a crime, and neither they nor their clients sacrificed their property rights without due process by participating in this unsavory online transaction.
Gizmodo spells it out: “Look beyond your own feelings about the morality of the site that was hacked. The implications of this mass revelation should horrify everyone, regardless of how you feel about Ashley Madison. You submit information online under the illusion that no one is ever going to see it—even if you know better. For the most part you’ll be safe, but as we increasingly entrust more and more of our private selves to inherently fallible digital service providers, devastating leaks like The Fappening [hackers releasing nude photos of celebrities] and the Ashley Madison breach are going to happen more and more.”
When that burst of celebrity nude photos hit the Net, many responded by essentially saying celebrities don’t have any real expectation of privacy (an idea floated since the earliest days of camera-wielding paparazzi, and obviously not accepted by celebrities themselves.) Some went further and suggested anyone who uploads nude pictures or other sensitive material to the Cloud is basically asking for it, and should not be surprised if their private information is eventually made public by hackers. Politically-active “hacktivists” seem firmly convinced that people they have judged guilty of various legal or social offenses have no privacy rights that command respect.
Is the Ashley Madison hack not a perfect example of that principle? How many people, upon hearing this story, snorted that clients of an adultery website deserve whatever misfortune comes their way? Vigilante impulses are easy to indulge when the targets don’t seem worthy of respect. Everybody seems unworthy of respect to someone. There aren’t any rules, so there’s no telling where all of this will end. Maybe people will be frightened right off the Internet, and return to secure paper correspondence… or maybe the generation to come will simply grow accustomed to very different notions of privacy and discretion.