On Monday morning, the websiteKrebsOnSecurity(link is external) reported that Ashley Madison (AM), a website and smartphone app designed to help married people engage in sexual infidelity, has been hacked, and that the infiltrators plan to release the names, credit card information, and detailed profiles of AM’s approximately 37.5 million members unless the site is immediately and permanently shut down. (A small percentage of this data has been released already, with more threatened for each day that the site remains online.)
Ashley Madison says that it has secured its site(link is external), closing the unauthorized access points. However, the damage has been done. The hackers have apparently already acquired the information they wanted, and can now theoretically post it at their leisure.
At the moment, the purpose of the hack is somewhat unclear. It may be a misguided attempt to expose some alleged financial shenanigans by the management of Ashley Madison. It may also be an attempt to sabotage the perceived social evil of sexual infidelity. Most likely it’s a bit of both. In the hackers’ statement, they claim they targeted AM because the company has been lying about the nature of its “full delete” feature, which, for a fee of $19, supposedly eliminates a user’s entire profile, including his or her usage history. (According to the hackers, this does not actually happen, and, in fact, the user’s full name, address, and credit card information remain in the system and therefore vulnerable...to people like them.) The hackers then say:
"Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion. ... We've got the complete set of profiles in our DB [database] dumps, and we’ll release them soon if Ashley Madison stays online. And with over 37 million members, mostly from the US and Canada, a significant percentage of the population is about to have a very bad day, including many rich and powerful people.”
- This a very mixed message.
- I find myself wondering if the hackers think that the women who use Ashley Madison are also dirtbags, or if they’re only angry with the men.
- There are a whole lot of AM members sweating bullets right now, whether or not they are active users—and whether or not they’ve actually cheated on their partners—because their trusting spouses are about to find out what they’ve done, or at least attempted or considered.
I also think it’s important to point out that for some people, the act of cheating may have just lost a large part of its allure. After all, the basic nature of cheating(link is external) generally involves the excitement of secrecy. In short, for the vast majority of men and women seeking and/or engaging in extramarital sex, part of the enjoyment they find is that the fruit is forbidden and must be kept under wraps. For many 21st-century cheaters, the generalized anonymity provided by the Internet, along with the security and confidentiality promised by the Ashley Madison and similar sites, are essential elements. Without them, the bloom is off the rose. (Never mind the fact that most AM users post face shots on their profiles that other members—all 37.5 million of them—can access at the touch of a button. So, yeah, maybe not so secret in the first place, guys...)
My point here is that most cheaters do what they do without ever thinking about the potential (if not inevitable) consequences: They don’t expect to get caught. They tell lies. They keep secrets. And they cover their tracks with clandestine credit cards, fake business trips, lying friends, etc. In other words, they control the flow of information received by their betrayed spouse, and then they run off and do what they want, when they want, with whom they want—ignoring their marital vows while telling themselves they’re not really hurting anyone: “What my husband (or wife) doesn’t know can’t possibly hurt them.”
That rationale is nonsense, of course. Even if a betrayed spouse doesn’t find out that he or she is being cheated on, it is nearly always clear that something is amiss in themarriage, because the cheater creates distance in the relationship—whether emotional, physical, or sexual—as a way to minimize the risk of discovery. Sometimes the cheated-on spouse will actually internalize blame for this, thinking that he or she has done something to create the rift. Worse, this fear is usually taken advantage of by the cheating partner.
If AM’s hackers follow through on the threat to data-dump the names and histories of all of the site's users, the carefully-crafted flow of information created by 37.5 million cheaters is about to explode. (That noise you just heard was 37.5 million people simultaneously popping the top off their Xanax bottles.)
Fear. Anxiety. Desperation. Damage control. Cheaters worldwide are in panic mode. Even those who use a service other than AM are probably worried, because if a security-conscious entity like Ashley Madison can be hacked, everyone else can, too. Anyonewho’s gone online for the purpose of cheating is vulnerable. This disturbing information is nothing new, of course. It may just be a bit more in-your-face this week.
The real question now is how Ashley Madison’s members (and other cheaters) will respond. Are they planning new lies in case they are exposed? “Honestly, honey, I had no intention of cheating. I just heard a friend talking about it and wanted to see what the site looked like.” Are they pre-emptively telling their spouses that, yes, they have a profile on AM, and, yes, they did cheat, but just that once and it will never happen again? Or are they just hunkering down, bracing for the worst but hoping for the best?
Another serious consideration here is what the larger-scale effects will be if (or when) the AM info is made public. I’m not just talking about marriages and families; I’m talking about careers and reputations. How will people react when they find out that their neighbor, their mother, their boss, or their mayor has been cheating? What if they find out that all of them have? Remember: This may represent infidelity on a massive scale, if AM is to be believed and there are really 37.5 million cheaters in its database. If it blows up, the impact is likely to be not just widespread but unexpected. We already know what cheating on a limited scale can do to marriages and families. What about the infidelities of an entire community?
We don't yet know what sorts of havoc this might lead to, because nothing like this has ever happened. Only time will tell.