The fall-out from the hack of the Ashley Madison website has begun. Things are getting ugly. The slogan for the site is “Life is short. Have an affair. We’re the premiere website for discreet connections.”
But now every e-mail address registered with the site is public knowledge. A group of hackers, grandiosely calling themselves the Impact Team, stole the site’s database of some 37 million users and this week released the details. Names, addresses, sexual preferences and GPS co-ordinates are available for anyone who wants to look.
The media, employers and paranoid partners are combing through the names and pouncing on anyone they know, publicising their details, ensuring everyone possible knows what they did – or what it looks like they did.
Adulterers, or apparent adulterers, are being outed with abandon. Exposed and shamed. Dreams have been shattered. Divorces may take place as a consequence. Thousands of American and UK government e-mail addresses have been identified. It’s possible jobs will be lost. In the US, under military rules, philanderers can be punished by a year in jail, and their pensions terminated.
What is remarkable is just how little outrage has been expressed about this hack, unlike previous ones.
How different it was when Edward Snowden revealed how much the US security services could know about us.
Then, the extensive access government had to our private information was strongly deplored – and rightly so.
Similarly, most sensible people condemned the invasive leaking of the celebrity film-star Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos after a major hacking. But with the subject of adultery, rifling through peoples’ private details and publicising them has been greeted with amusement, with schadenfreude. A representative tweet put it this way: “Sometimes hackers can actually do a lot of good for society.”
But to ruin lives in this way benefits no-one.
US reality TV star and conservative Christian Josh Duggar is one of the users ruthlessly exposed by the hackers. He has been humiliated, and has had to publically apologise for being “the biggest hypocrite ever” in being unfaithful to his wife. I bet she’s distraught.
A woman in Sydney was told live on air this week that her husband was registered with website. Her life destroyed for a bit of entertainment.
A married SNP MP, Michelle Thomson, whose e-mail address was among the millions released, has had to defend her reputation, because, she says, her identity was “harvested” for the site – no-one at the company verifies the accounts, so it’s also likely that the one in Tony Blair’s name is fake. Ditto, the e-mail address for FBI agent Fox Mulder, a character on the TV show, The X-Files.
We like to think of ourselves as relaxed about peoples’ sexuality, and as non-judgmental about their choices, but the moralistic response to what is a dangerous invasion of privacy suggests this is far from case. Ashley Madison, and its owners, is a laughing stock, as are its clients. Rather than express sympathy with people whose names have been released, or outrage at the hackers, the victims have been subjected to nods, winks and jokes, the owners of the site to ridicule. Charming.
But pause for a moment and consider this: these people – cheaters or not – should not be exposed in this way.
The Impact Team posted a justification, calling the users “cheating dirtbags” saying they “do not deserve anonymity”, but why should these hackers have the right to pontificate on what millions of people – whom they have never met – get up to in their private lives? What is achieved by doing so? How is releasing the names in the public interest?
I’m not defending Ashley Madison or its users because I approve of extra-marital affairs, or because I think it’s a good idea to cheat on your partner.
For the record, I don’t endorse covert couplings of this sort, and if you were to ask my advice, I would recommend honesty as the best policy for most marriages. But I also don’t think it’s any of my business how other adults choose to run their personal lives. It’s called a private life for a reason. I would feel differently, no doubt, if a close friend was involved, and might intervene, but say the spouse of a friend was registered with Ashley Madison, I wouldn’t want the rest of the world to know, neither, no doubt, would either party in the couple. Such a situation – which is common – is best broached discreetly and discussed among very close friends, without an audience.
The hack of Ashley Madison and the response to it should worry everyone, no matter what they or their partner gets up to in the bedroom, or in a hotel room for that matter, for it promotes a dangerous ideal of transparency, the idea that everything is best out in the open, suggesting if people have something to hide, they shouldn’t be doing it. But we all have something to hide. We all have something about us we would rather other people did not know. It may not be something that you or I would approve of, but so what? What about a live-and-let-live approach to what adults choose to do together?
Transparency has come to be seen as a bipartisan political good: embraced by the right as well as the left; advocated by officialdom as well as new social movements claiming to challenge the status quo, but there are real dangers with it.
The mantra for openness means big technology companies can monitor us, and work with the government to create and uphold the frightening surveillance system that we now live under. That doesn’t benefit the weak or the vulnerable, or those who want to challenge the system, nor those of us who want a private life.
We should barricade the bedroom door against the hackers – and those cheering them on. Adulterers need privacy too.