More than an amusing sex scandal
The Ashley Madison leak is about way more than infidelity, says Michael E. Miller.
Washington - Amid reports that hackers apparently had posted online the personal and financial information for up to 40 million members of the infidelities-R-us website Ashley Madison, some Americans responded Tuesday night with a shrug.
Just as many, however, responded with a smirk.
Call it schadenfreude. Or, to use the parlance of our high-tech, low sympathy times, a collective lulz. But many people took to Twitter to express their amusement at what seemed to them like poetic justice.
"Who knew paying money to cheat on your spouse had consequences? #AshleyMadison," one person tweeted sarcastically.
"Sometimes hackers can actually do a lot of good for society," wrote another.
"All the Ashley Madison users who got their data put out in the open deserved it lol," added a third, alongside a smiley face.
Many poked fun at the relationship troubles sure to be unleashed by unmasking users of the popular "have an affair" Web site.
"Uh oh some folks are in trouble LOL," one man tweeted.
"God I wish I'd become a divorce lawyer," added a second.
"Lol. We're going to need bigger courthouse...," tweeted Andrew H. Scott, the mayor of Coal Run, Kentucky.
Nobody gloated more, however, than the hackers themselves.
"Avid Life Media has failed to take down Ashley Madison and Established Men," the Impact Team wrote in a statement accompanying the alleged leak, according to Wired. "We have explained the fraud, deceit, and stupidity of ALM and their members. Now everyone gets to see their data. Find someone you know in here? Keep in mind the site is a scam with thousands of fake female profiles. See ashley madison fake profile lawsuit; 90-95% of actual users are male. Chances are your man signed up on the world's biggest affair site, but never had one. He just tried to. If that distinction matters.
"Find yourself in here? It was ALM that failed you and lied to you. Prosecute them and claim damages. Then move on with your life. Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you'll get over it."
Although some security experts cast doubt on the authenticity of the 9.7-gigabyte leak, most said it looked legit.
Brian Krebs, the security expert who writes KrebsonSecurity, was sceptical at first but then reported late Tuesday night that he had spoken with "three vouched sources who have all reported finding their information and last four digits of their credit card numbers in the leaked database . . .. I'm sure there are millions of AshleyMadison users who wish it weren't so, but there is every indication this dump is the real deal”.
Assuming it is, Tuesday's mega-doxing appears to fulfil the threat issued in July, when the Impact Team first claimed that it had hacked Ashley Madison and said it would publish its customers' records unless the company "permanently" took down its website.
But before you celebrate your comeuppance over less ethical friends and colleagues, consider this: the Ashley Madison leak is about a lot more than the public shaming of philanderers.
Above all, it's about internet privacy.
Within minutes of the alleged leak, people began combing the data for information and posting their findings. Journalists and security experts quickly noted that there were 15 000 .mil or .gov email addresses among those used for the site.
Under military rules, philanderers can be punished by a year in confinement and a dishonourable discharge, which means losing their pension, Slate reported.
"I wonder how many military retirements will be dropped tomorrow," one person wrote on Twitter. "It certainly be an interesting few weeks."
One Ashley Madison customer apparently used former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's work email to set up their seeking-sex account. (Ashley Madison does not verify the email addresses, meaning anyone could have used Blair's email, Wired pointed out.)
But the internet soon turned its ire on other suspected Ashley Madison members, such as university professors and other "SJWs," a derogatory acronym for "social justice warriors," or people who speak out publicly against discrimination.
Computer security expert Graham Cluley quickly warned against such witch-hunts on his blog.
"For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner," he wrote. "You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh... never seriously planning to take things any further."
You might be a journalist who joined to write about Ashley Madison, for example. Or, as some self-described Ashley Madison users have said on Reddit, you may be in an open marriage.
"But more importantly than all of that, if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing," Cluley wrote. "The owner of that email address may never have even visited the Ashley Madison site."
Cluley also wrote recently about the real risk that a leak could lead to suicide.
"What the howling wolves doesn't seem to understand is what they are doing is online bullying. The kind of bullying that clearly can cause such personal tragedies," he wrote.
"'If they are cheating, they deserve it,' the wolves reply. While I totally disagree with that argument, let me add that their kids do not deserve to lose a parent. Their family doesn't deserve to lose a loved one. And that also applies to friends, colleagues, neighbours and others. If you are found to have bullied somebody into suicide however... I believe you deserve jailtime for that."
And then there is another concern: that although the leak itself appears to be a moral vendetta, it could lead to individual cases of blackmail as people comb through the information and spot co-workers, neighbours or acquaintances.
By the time you read this, there is a good chance someone on 4chan will have figured out a way to make the leaked info searchable.
Amid the gloating on Tuesday night, a few people recognised the Ashley Madison leak as something much bigger than a chance to snicker: a turning point for American society, the internet and maybe even marriage itself.
In 2012, writer Jon Methven imagined just this type of tectonic internet shift in his short story, "Life After A Total Hack." Methven's fictional tale began with a woman agonising over the chance her husband could learn about her online sexual fantasies, but quickly broadened. Widespread hacking would render much of the internet itself useless, Methven's story suggested.
"Molly missed her online communities: Facebook, SoundCloud, MyLife, Goodreads (though she hated to read), Twitter, Google+, Meetup, Foursquare, Pinterest, CafeMom (even though she did not like children), StumbleUpon, Flickr and LinkedIn, all of which she used to visit daily," he wrote. "When the hack occurred, she was nervous about visiting any of the sites lest more of her personal life get leaked online."
Journalist Chris Hayes took to Twitter to similarly suggest that if Ashley Madison could be hacked, so could many other things we might not feel nearly as smug about. "Forget Ashley Madison, for a moment, and replace it with: medical records. Your full income tax returns. Your inbox."
Perhaps the best and broadest take on #AshleyMadison-gate came from The Awl's John Herrman.
"I'm not sure anyone is really reckoning with how big this could be, yet," he wrote. "If the data becomes as public and available as seems likely right now, we're talking about tens of millions of people who will be publicly confronted with choices they thought they made in private. The result won't just be getting caught, it will be getting caught in an incredibly visible way that could conceivably follow victims around the internet for years."
Herrman wondered how media organisations would treat the leak, for example. Is it news for a politician to have an affair? What about a police chief? And what about your kid's kindergarten teacher?
And what would a flood of divorces mean for marriage, an institution already on the wane in America?
"I may be overestimating how far things will unfold, but this feels like a momentous event," he wrote... It's easy to kid about the fact that these people were using a site intended to help them cheat. But if understood in more abstract terms, this hack has the potential to alter anyone's relationship with the devices and apps and services they use every day," Herrman argued.
"Here were tens of millions of people expecting the highest level of privacy that the commercial web could offer as they conducted business they likely wanted to keep between two people. This hack could be ruinous_personally, professionally, financially_for them and their families. But for everyone else, it could haunt every email, private message, text and transaction across an internet where privacy has been taken for granted."
In other words, the Ashley Madison leak is about a lot more than infidelity. And the information the Impact Team just unleashed onto the internet is more than an amusing sex scandal.
It might be Pandora's box.