What is Wrong with the Ashley Madison Leak?
On August 18th, the profiles of 30 million accounts on the popular dating and self described adultery website Ashley Madison were leaked by a hacker group called the Impact Team. Within hours, various sites had made the leaked information accessible to the public. Today, someone could conveniently search a database to see if their spouse, family member, friend, or a popular celebrity was within the list of cheaters released. In addition, several articles were written by news outlets on where to look to find the information along with popular figures in society who were outed with the hack.
With this hack and release, there has come much praise for the information release which has ousted many cheating or would be cheating individuals. Even I have to admit, there is a small amount of satisfaction in some people being caught. Plus to some extent, this is a good wake up call on how secure any of our data really is.
But in all honesty, that satisfaction is overshadowed with a little bit for guilt but also a fair amount of worry about "righteous hacking". This was somebody else's personal, intimate information. It was taken from them illegally. I should never have seen it and yet I can see it if I want to and it is ok for this stolen information to be broadcasted on the news and internet.
What's Wrong With That?
I can understand that it feels good when people that do bad things get what's coming. However, this went way beyond someone finding out their friend is cheating and then confronting them or their friend's spouse. This leak is visible to the PTA, the church, their kids, their friends, their boss, their co-workers, and everyone else. While there is some shred of sympathy in me for the person using the site, there is a whole lot for the family that is now caught in a whirlwind they did not ask for. Plus, all we get is a list that comes off as black and white when really in some cases it may not be. None of us really know the true circumstances of a lot of these people's marriages. Even if we choose to accept things as black and white is the cost of human life worth the price.
At least 2 suicides have taken place since the leak. One of which was in response to fake leak where a man who did not use the website was listed to be a user by an erroneous report and in response he took his life in a church parking lot after his reputation was destroyed. Furthermore, in some countries adultery and homosexuality are criminal offenses with some penalties ranging all the way to death and people are in hiding. While it is a catchy article and there is arguably some good it is not with out its cost. Some families are going to be torn apart, some have lost jobs, and other have and may die because of this release. What we must decide is if this invasion of privacy is OK because "they had it coming".
It is a Dangerous Precedent
The system of shame hacking worries me. Someone's legal and private personal information can be taken from the internet and then broadcast to the public. When naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others were posted during the Apple Cloud hack some felt that it was the girls' fault for having nude photos in the first place and storing them on their computer or in their cloud. While, I can agree that it is an inherent risk and not the best approach with the current cyber climate; these were their pictures on their private account for their personal use. It was within their legal rights to take them and I do not believe that the general public has the right to treat pictures of their bodies as public domain because someone is crafty enough to breach their firewalls.
To be honest the fact that someone can hack anyone's information is not the scariest thing to me. The bigger issue is that everyone knows when these hacks occur that these photos, videos, accounts, and etc were stolen, however, you can still easily find them with a Google search on major websites. Rather than holding the people who leak the information accountable we put the blame on the people who put their information online. While the Impact Team stole the information they still sent the information to websites and news outlets who then distributed and profited from information that was illegally obtained. While I understand that there is a need for whistle blowers, who so and so is sleeping with is not a matter of national security or safety.
Do you think the Ashley Madison hack was a good thing?
If we choose to distribute illegally obtained information in the media, where is the line. If a proponent for Planned Parenthood hacked an abortion clinic website and posted the information of everyone that had an abortion would that be acceptable? If someone hacked a pornographic website and posted the credit card information of all its members would that be fair game too? What about medical records about STD's or plastic surgery or sexual history?
All and all, the implications of accepting this form of privacy breach and mass distribution are far reaching. We must decide where our balance is between privacy and publicity and what we or anybody else really needs to know about somebody else. Not everyone's values are the same and no one is perfect and we must be careful how much validation we give these "righteous" leaks that seek to expose and shame.