Maybe about four years ago, as a single guy in his mid-twenties, I was in the grip of an online-dating fever. (I’m single now as well. It has to be a conspiracy!) I had tried a few dating sites already and found them wanting. Clicking around the Internet one day in search of new ones, I saw a link to something called “Ashley Madison.”
I had never heard of it before. I opened the link to see what it was all about. The site’s motto was and remains, at least until the class-action suits drive it into dissolution, “Life is short. Have an affair.” I thought that this had to be some sort of gimmick. Maybe they were referring to their dates as “affairs” to make it all seem more sexy and secret and thrilling? I decided to look further. It became clearer to me, as I began to sign up, that they were serious about the affair angle. But you could sign on as a single person and search for other single people, so, being a solo twenty-something, I thought that while some people might ask “why,” I could only ask, “why not?”
It was immediately obvious to me that the site was worthless—and laughably so. It was like walking into a digital strip club in which all the dancers were computer simulations. The whole site had a contrived, Potemkin Village-feel to it, as though it were made for virtual titillation more so than actual contact. The pink and black color scheme kept reminding me of boxes of Good ‘n Plenty. If I remember correctly, the site’s designers were big on cheesy cliché symbolism and boudoir imagery like rouge lips and lace.
I can recall that you didn’t pay for a membership per se; rather, there was some kind of point scheme where you paid for “credits” to talk to others. Most of the women’s profiles, however, appeared to be fake. (Anyone with online-dating experience can spot a fake female profile many miles away: the girl is just a bit too attractive, the photographs just a bit too posed and professional, the biographical content just too flirty or perhaps missing altogether.) It was nearly impossible to establish contact with a flesh-and-blood person: I didn’t interact with a single human being on Ashley Madison. I logged in maybe a few times over the course of a few weeks and then abandoned the whole thing.
So I am technically a victim of the major hack-and-dump operation that was recently perpetrated on Ashley Madison and its parent company, Avid Life Media. Whatever. When my brother was found to have an aggressive and likely terminal brain cancer last year, most things in life began to strike me as trivial. But for the people who were serious, long-term users of the site—i.e., people who were in committed relationships—it’s a genuine cause for panic. Some of these people signed up using official email addresses, including government and corporate ones. Oops.
It’s amazing to me that anyone could have paid to use Ashley Madison for more than a few weeks. If I had to guess, I’d say that at least 90% of the male users of the site never consummated any kind of relationship with anyone else. How could they? The ratio of male to (real) female users was probably something like 100 to 1.
Regarding the hack and its human consequences: If I had to guess some more, I’d say that many users were deeply unserious about the site to begin with. I’m sure many people were single, looking for dates or flings. (One single user appears to have been a Florida politician.) Perhaps others were simply curious. I’m sure there were plenty of swingers and open-relationship-type people too. Or perhaps they got a rise out of the secretive nature of it, almost like interactive pornography. Then there are people who used it for much sadder reasons, which you can read about here.
It is rare that I agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I have not found a more reasonable and thoughtful response to the Ashley Madison hack than his, published here at The Intercept. Like Greenwald, I don’t take the popular line that this hack is some sort of comeuppance for adulterers. No, this is just another example of how the Internet ruins lives every day. It’s also an example of how people’s need to obsess over others’ personal lives is becoming harder to satisfy; thus they delight in ever-more destructive stunts like this one, like an addict who needs a bigger hit. This hack is a serious crime with serious consequences. Stealing user records and proprietary data and ruining lives does not become funny just because the targets are people we dislike.
And besides, I’m sure all the preening spectators to this virtual car fire have no sex drives, quirks, fantasies, fetishes, desires, weaknesses, mistakes, or embarrassing episodes of their own they wouldn’t want broadcast to billions of people.
Consider: Most of us could be destroyed quite easily if a hostile person had access to our personal computers and electronic devices for even five minutes. By “destroyed” I don’t mean that they would find evidence of illegal activity; they would, however, be able to cause all of us significant embarrassment. All flirty chats and emails are embarrassing—in fact, all chats and emails, when revealed for public consumption, are embarrassing, full stop. The most quotidian private act suddenly becomes scandalous if the world can see it.
Would you want the photo folders of your smartphone published on a rogue website? (All those selfies!) How about that folder on your desktop with all the abandoned drafts of hackish essays and puerile short stories?
Think of what else could be hacked. I’m not technically literate enough to know what’s possible, but some horrifying scenarios seem at least plausible to me. What if, for instance, hackers found a way to dump millions of people’s Google search histories onto databases organized by name and email address? What if—and this has already happened to some people—your order history on Amazon were made public? Again, this would be mortifying regardless of how banal the purchases were. The mere thought that your orders of new underwear or acne cream might go public is enough to drive most people to the bottle.
Back in June I wrote a piece for PJ Media asking whether people would eventually reject the Internet to some degree, or at the very least begin to demand more rigorous privacy schemes and legal protections, such as certain laws in Europe. You may think I’m just channeling some Luddite fantasy, but I do think our present course is unsustainable.