Thoughts on the Ashley Madison hack

I’m irritated by this whole thing.

On the one hand, it’s interesting that this might be the first time where MEN are being targeted generally for revenge for sexual indiscretions, and that these indiscretions are actually far more indiscrete than taking nude selfies to share with consenting adults.

On the other, this hack is every bit as much of a violation for these men and women, though it seems mostly only the men are going to be targeted. It includes information about their fetishes, and it includes instances of every account that’s ever been created and since “deleted”-but-not-really. The hack of the information from the site’s database is horrid, and the intent from some quarters — political, anti-social-justice, etc — to pore through it to damn specific people over being in that database is really gross. It’s gross in the same sort of voyeuristic way that putting up revenge porn is gross, though maybe not gross to the same degree insofar as it’s damning them for, at best, THINKING of doing something unethical, rather than damning them for doing something totally normal and commonplace as sending nudies to consenting partners.

This amounts to an infidelity dragnet, and it’s bound to catch innocents who’ve only engaged in “thoughtcrime”, having CONSIDERED having an affair. People who had accounts at one time, but no longer. People who had accounts before even being married. Yes, the site is about married people looking to “cheat”, but I’m sure straight and lovelorn people have ended up signing up for accounts on Grindr before, so it’s bound to happen that people sign up for this site just looking to pull a date. Not to mention that poly folks could very well use this relationship-finder with the full knowledge of their partners. Or people who signed up to research the site, even!

Mind you, it is a bright line that I cannot cross, where I would never engage in any activity that anyone directly impacted by it — e.g. partners — would not consent to. I am an advocate of ongoing, active, informed consent, and abrogating that consent is gross and wrong. It is a breach of trust that absolutely could and probably should ruin relationships. An ethical thing to do on encountering this information about someone’s relationship is to tell them privately — not splash it all over the deep web and create searchable indexes so that 4chan can go digging for dirt on all their most hated Social Justice Warriors. Never mind that they’re the ones constantly claiming that feminists just hate sex (despite evidence to the contrary), giving them the narrative that proving they might want sex somehow makes them hypocrites.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that finally, FINALLY, Josh Duggar — who molested several of his sisters — is suddenly viewed as a bad guy because he had an account here. Admitted child molestation is not a less serious crime than planning on cheating on your wife with zero proof of follow-through.

Just an unstructured thought dump.

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Thoughts on the Ashley Madison hack
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24 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Ashley Madison hack

  1. 2

    I’m a little torn over this. On one hand, it’s an invasion of privacy which should not be tolerated in any form. It’s bad enough to take the information, but to release it is infinitely worse. On the other hand, “Oh darn, a bunch of adulterers got their info stolen.” I find it a little difficult to feel pity for them unless they were in a consenting open marriage.

    Duggar is another story and it’s only by the grace of a short statute of limitations that he (and his parents) paid no legal ramifications for his actions. His sisters shouldn’t have had to grow up with him in the house let alone have their past brought to the public like that. If he’s finally being seen as a bad guy by all the people who defended his past actions, all the better.

  2. 3

    The attack was on Ashley Madison. They wanted to bring the actual site Ashley Madison down. Ashley Madison was a scamming website, tricking people men to sign up securely for money.

    The hackers themselves said that they doubted that many of the people actually successfully had an affair because the site was a scam with an 95% male userbase. However, because of the money-charging scheme I doubt how many were “innocents.” I mean, paying money shows some serious intention to have an affair imo, even if you’re unsuccessful.

    This will probably destroy Ashley Madison (which is the hackers’ goal), and may even throw into question any similar sites. How can truly provide a secure site that your wife won’t find out about after this hack?

  3. 4

    There is no tenable moral argument for doing what the hackers have done.

    I strongly dislike the Ashley Madison site, ever since I heard about it (through advertising on TV), but that is because of my own ethical code. I am not the arbiter of other people’s moral stances and the fact that I have never had an affair doesn’t mean I have never been tempted and other different circumstances maybe I would have.

    The argument about it being a scam site is ludicrous. If its a scam site, gather evidence and prosecute through legal channels. What utter bullshit.

    The fact that they have endangered peoples lives and livelihoods is terrible. Its the old “if you are not guilty you have nothing to fear” rubbish. That assumes that the person you are pressing agrees with your morals.

  4. 5

    It’s the sort of thing that could come around to bite me.

    Back when I was single and doing the online dating thing, I actually signed up to AM. Mainly out of curiosity as to who was using the site.

    It became *immediately* apparent that the site was a money-sink. When I found out that they wanted to charge for removing your account, I just rolled my eyes, set my account settings to hidden, and created an email rule to block the notifications generated by the transparently fake female accounts trying to connect with me.

    My girlfriend and I have compared notes over our online dating experiences, so she’s familiar with this, and it’s not going to harm my relationship in any way. But it’s still the sort of thing that could potentially come around and bite me in the future.

    Then again, I kind of knew that when I signed up. I have no illusions about internet security.

  5. 6

    Not Erin @3:

    On the other hand, “Oh darn, a bunch of adulterers got their info stolen.” I find it a little difficult to feel pity for them unless they were in a consenting open marriage.

    Please note comment #1 in this thread. Also, this piece by Glenn Greenwald-The puritanical glee of the Ashley Madison hack-is a good read:

    The names of various prominent figures appearing in the data base have already been published, some of whom insist they never used the site.

    It’s hard to overstate the devastation to some people’s lives from having their names published as part of this hack: not only to their relationships with their spouses and children but to their careers, reputations, and – depending on where they live – possibly their liberty or even life. What appears on the internet is permanent and inescapable. All of the people whose names appear in this data base will now be permanently branded with a digital “A.” Whether they actually did what they are accused of will be irrelevant: digital lynch mobs offer no due process or appeals. And it seems certain that many of the people whose lives are harmed, or ruined, by this hack will have been guilty of nothing.

    For numerous, obvious reasons, the fact that someone’s name appears in the Ashley Madison data base does not mean they have engaged in marital infidelity. To begin with, it is easy to enter someone else’s name and email address, as happened to The Intercept‘s Farai Chideya. Beyond that, there are all sorts of reasons someone may use this website without having cheated on their spouse. Some may use the site as pornography because it titillates them, or because they are tempted to cheat but are resisting the urge, or because they’re married but in a relationship where monogamy is not demanded, or because they’re researchers or journalists observing this precinct of online interaction, or countless other reasons. This permanent, highly public shaming of these “adulterers” is not only puritanical but reckless in the extreme, since many who end up branded with the Scarlet “A” may have done absolutely nothing wrong.

    The people affected by this are more than cheating spouses (or those that were looking to cheat). In addition, even if it were, the potential harm that could be caused by the release of personal information, when weighed against infidelity, is the worse of the two, IMO.

  6. 8

    I’m not familiar with AM, but I have read that 86% of clients are men and the rest women. I’ve also read that many people believe the many of the “women” are actually fake accounts. AM hired people to set up fake accounts to attract more fee-paying (male) customers. OK, that’s on the intertubes, so a grain of salt may be necessary.

    Was this database encrypted or was it directly readable. If I was running such a site, I’d have my data heavily encrypted.

  7. 9

    Good post and I agree with practically everything you wrote.

    Your last lines about the Christian guy gave me a pause. You remarked that

    Admitted child molestation is not a less serious crime than planning on cheating on your wife with zero proof of follow-through.


    Yeah, well, I agree with this (kinda hard to disagree!) Still, there is one question left unanswered which I would like to ask. The question is:

    Would you consider it a good idea to abstain from mentioning *any* identifying information about the people involved? In particular, no names?

    Arguments for answering “yes”:

    – Evidently, the perpetrators revealed the identifying information so that public accusations could be made. Not only did they foresee such an outcome, they were counting on it. By repeating and spreading such information, we dance to their tune and reinforce their behavior.

    – It’s very easy to succumb to the temptation of dropping the names of *the proper people* (say, Christian activists, prominent right wingers – whatever you want). After all, “they deserve it”, “they are hypocrites” – and so on, and so on. Still, I can’t see much good coming of it. Your political opponents will do exactly the same, only for them *your side* will become the target. In the end, there will be no winners. Just mud.

    – Moral scruples – not necessarily utilitarian, as in the previous two arguments – against propagating (not to mention using) this sort of information. Obviously, the people we detest also have a right to privacy. Perhaps less obviously, I consider this moral right considerably *stronger*, if the information is obtained by immoral means (stealing, eavesdropping, hacking).

    Arguments for answering “no” (I can think of only one, really):
    – The names are already there. It’s a futile gesture. Whatever I do, it will make no difference.

    As you probably could have guessed, I prefer the “yes” side and I will try to stick to it as best as I can. But that’s maybe because the only argument for the “no” answer, which I was able to find, is so hopelessly bitter.

  8. 10

    Ariel, in principle, yes. Abstaining from naming new names publicly is the right choice. These people may or may not have done anything wrong, and I wouldn’t want to damn them publicly if they’re actually innocent.

    I am afraid that the cat is out of the bag well and truly with respect to Josh Duggar — if you search the news right now for Ashley Madison, half the hits are going to contain his name in the title of the articles. Searching Google right now for Ashley Madison puts the headline “Josh Duggar after Ashley Madison hack: ‘I have been the biggest hypocrite ever'” in the biggest text at the top of the news box right under the search. That link is a CNN link.

    My mentioning it now is grossly unlikely to give any new person the information that he’s on the list. And my complaint about him here is specifically that for some people, THIS is what it takes to paint him as a scumbag when some of these same people were defending him as “playing doctor” with his sisters not a month ago.

  9. 11

    Also, I’ll point out that the person who pored through the database and found Duggar’s name (or Ctrl-F’d it specifically) did something immoral. Everyone after that who publicized it did something less immoral, but still immoral. After a tipping point, discussing the events — because they’re widely known — is not immoral.

  10. 12

    Regarding the “Ashley Madison was a scam site” angle:

    Ashley Madison would hardly be the first website of its kind to have fake profiles and the idea that that justifies the hack is highly dubious.

    Many normal dating websites and the vast majority of adult dating websites have the following model:
    1. Sign up and make an account for free.
    2. Search profiles for free.
    3. To send messages and even read messages you have received, you must have a paid membership.

    And on several of these sites, you get a suspiciously large number of messages that you cannot read shortly after making your account. Even if you have no info on it. And you can also see several profiles that look a little too good to be true. They have fake messages and fake accounts to sucker people into paying for services.

    I doubt Ashley Madison is even the biggest site that does shit like that. So don’t be fooled: this isn’t righteous anger about a “scam”. This is almost exclusively about people saying “omg, people I don’t know possibly having ‘affairs’, maybe, for reasons I do not know or understand!!!”. It is judgmental moral disgust against cheating and adultery, on a site that certainly glorifies and incentivizes cheaters, but is not exclusively for it. The “scam” angle is just a fig leaf, a post hoc rationalization for targeting the website with all those filthy adulterers.

    Additional two points:
    1. The “scam” excuse undermines the assumption that all the people on there are cheaters: how can they both be scammed out of money to pay for an affair and also be successful in having affairs? It is incoherent to have moral outrage about both simultaneously.
    2. If this was about hurting Ashley Madison exclusively rather than punishing its users, then there would be no point in publishing user info. There are other ways to damage the company, without causing harm to people who simply pay for the service (and, allegedly, have already been scammed, according to this narrative). This would have been a completely different hack if the goal wasn’t to name and shame alleged adulterers, but rather to punish a bad company.

  11. 13

    Jason:

    My mentioning it now is grossly unlikely to give any new person the information that he’s on the list.

    Well, I was almost one of them (just a bit earlier I read about it on Ophelia’s blog).

    Everyone after that who publicized it did something less immoral, but still immoral. After a tipping point, discussing the events — because they’re widely known — is not immoral.


    Yeah, I find such an approach acceptable. I won’t adopt it in my own practice, still preferring to avoid naming people even after a tipping point, but it’s more like a private protest than a morality judgment. (In particular, no ‘holier than thou’ attitude implied here.)

    Thanks for a very clear answer.

  12. 14

    Well, it’s not TOTALLY clear, I have no idea what the tipping point would be with any precision. I know that it being splashed on CNN is past that tipping point though. 🙂

  13. 15

    Yes, the hack was wrong, and releasing that information was a violation of privacy and a net harm – it absolutely shouldn’t have been done.

    This is made starkly clear by comment #1 and holy crap my heart goes out to anyone in that situation.

    I am simultaneously having a really hard time dredging up any sympathy for the actual cheaters using that site. (And yes, this includes the poor, misunderstood proto cheaters who were “just looking” but sadly, despite paying money for the chance, never actually got to screw around on their partner). The idea that people who were actively trying to cheat but were unable to find a partner are being punished for “thoughtcrime” (as I keep seeing it referred to) is ridiculous. You’ve moved beyond “thought” when you’ve signed up to and paid money to a website that will help you cheat on your spouse. Now you have entered, at the least, “I made a mistake” territory.
    I certainly don’t agree with these people being publicly shamed – the image I am having a hard time getting out of my head though, is the one of the spouse who is currently being lied to and betrayed finding out about it and being free to maybe not waste any more time with a partner who will treat them that way. Or, being able to get them to marriage counseling to try to salvage the relationship. Either way, that’s potentially years of emotion and investment in a bad relationship that this person is avoiding because they found out about the cheating now. I am having a hard time being upset about that aspect of the situation.

  14. 16

    @12 anteprepro

    2. If this was about hurting Ashley Madison exclusively rather than punishing its users, then there would be no point in publishing user info. There are other ways to damage the company, without causing harm to people who simply pay for the service (and, allegedly, have already been scammed, according to this narrative). This would have been a completely different hack if the goal wasn’t to name and shame alleged adulterers, but rather to punish a bad company.

    No, I disagree. Ashley Madison’s business model is all about the privacy of its users. Throwing the privacy out of the window destroys the business model and will very likely destroy the website. Further, I puts into question any similar websites with such business models.

    The hackers threatened their parent company to shut the whole thing down before they released the data. Maybe they would have released the data anyway, but that’s what the hackers demanded before the data dump. If you take the hackers’ word for it, they were trying to take down Ashley Madison, and were using the personal data as collateral. The media (and everyone) of course focuses on the data dump because that’s salicious, but that’s kind of ignoring the point according to the hackers.

  15. 18

    I’m of 2 minds on this.

    For average users of Ashley Madison, their affair isn’t my business. It’s between them, their spouse/partner, and family. That their presence on AM suggests they really needed (and definitely now need) to have a heartfelt discussion with those people doesn’t justify a 3rd party ratting them out.

    But for public figures, I think the calculus is different. For instance, Josh Duggar committed sexual crimes, and has spent a large portion of his adult life campaigning against LGBT people and working for an organization that supported the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda. It was hypocritical of him to campaign that me getting married would violate the sanctity of marriage while he had an affair on his wife, and he hasn’t really apologized to many of the people he’s wronged over the years. And so I’m absolutely glad that his hypocrisy was discovered and publicized.

  16. 19

    The more I think about it the more I think that outing conservative politicians just isn’t worth it.

    I mean, look at Duggar. He’s made his apology, shifted the blame to porn and satan, and now he can always get a job as an anti-porn speaker. He can still point to the “evil gays” and even give them some of the blame for his own actions. It does nothing to discredit him in the long term, and it gives cover to outing public progressive figures.

    Do you really think that the conservative media is going to go “Oh, I see the nuance in whom you are outing versus whom you are respecting”. Hell no. They’ll gleefully out closeted progressives and point to the outing of their own pastors and claim fair play. They’ll point out to their base how hypocritical we progressives are to castigate Duggar for his infidelity but turn around and say Bill Clinton’s affair was between him, Hillary, and Monica.

    This shit rolls right off their backs and they turn around and use it against us.

  17. 21

    If this is ok, then that means it’s ok for a group with technical knowhow to blow the privacy (financial as well as personal) of anyone who is doing something they think is immoral. And that’s the big sticking point: anything they think is immoral. It is but a tiny, tiny step from this to a hack that, say, breaks into an insurance database and publishes the name and home address of every teenaged girl who has had an abortion. (Heck, the Kansas attorney general tried to do that himself a few years ago.) It’s not ok, because a random vigilante group can’t be allowed to set the boundaries for everyone.

  18. PHB
    22

    I work on Internet crime and Ashley Madison was a cess pool that spread festering awful far and wide beyond the site itself.

    Asking if the customers are to blame is to make the mistake of thinking that only one side can be at fault. Most frauds target people who think they are making a dishonest buck. In this case it was a dishonest fuck. But the principle is exactly the same: the easiest person to scam is someone who thinks they are a scammer.

    Since I wasn’t going to actually give the scammers money, my ability to investigate was rather limited. The privacy protections were rather lax even before the breach. I am pretty sure that only one of the women on the site was genuine and she turned out to be another person investigating the site for a site she was putting together with dating advice.

    Since there weren’t any females there and it was aimed at heterosexuals only, it really wasn’t very relevant to my concern about online dating safety.

  19. 23

    #21, carlie:

    If this is ok, then that means it’s ok for a group with technical knowhow to blow the privacy (financial as well as personal) of anyone who is doing something they think is immoral. And that’s the big sticking point: anything they think is immoral.

    QFT. If you approve of the AM hack, it means you approve of an individual or organization, who by remaining anonymous, cannot be held accountable for their moral compass (or lack thereof). Do they find BDSM immoral? Consensual BDSM sites might be next. Think the Queers(TM) are immoral? OkCupid, with its queer friendly policies, might be next. Maybe at some point this individual/organization will publish comprehensive and publicly available manifests on everyone they can find in any website. Who the hell knows. By remaining anonymous, we don’t even know what their stated goal is, other than juvenile murmuring of “anarchy hurr durr.” The hackers need to take accountability for their actions, and not just through an internet handle that will protect their identity.

  20. 24

    While I do admit to some schdenfreude over the fact that Josh Duggar was caught redhanded, I disapporove stunts like these.

    I have been in a monogamous relationship for close to 20 years, and have never cheated. But I’ve had an account on OKCupid, and considered joining tinder.

    I have grown up with the internet and I a m curious, so when I read about the darknet, I tried it out. OKCupid was analyzing their users answers to find trends, so I tried OKCupid to try out answering it myself, and yes to see what kind of people it would match me up against.

    I don’t think I ever told my wife about this, and if it became public it could look wrong, even though it is just a case of curiousity.

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