Massive data breaches have become so routine as to become background noise. In the past year, half of American adults had their personal information exposed as a result of hacks, The New York Times reported last month. And yet while every hack produces anguished headlines and hand-wringing, the impact of the data breaches on average people is small. Hackers may gain access to your email address, or your phone number, or an encrypted password. But any financial losses are typically absorbed by your bank. We glance at the headlines, change our passwords, and await the next minor inconvenience.
The apparent release last night of personal information for 32 million registered users of AshleyMadison.com, a website for connecting people who want to have affairs, is likely to have much more profound consequences. Impact Team, the group of anonymous hackers who are taking credit for the breach, sought to have Ashley Madison’s website taken down in protest of the company’s business practices and its encouragement of adultery. But the practical impact of the breach is likely to be much broader. There are a lot of threads here, and it’s worth sorting them out.
The consequences for Ashley Madison are likely to be catastrophic
The consequences for Ashley Madison are likely to be catastrophic. A CEO who routinely bragged about the company’s privacy features now seems likely to face a barrage of lawsuits from members who have found their information exposed. And a site that depends on privacy and security to earn members’ trust may find it impossible to win it back.
The legal consequences are likely to extend beyond lawsuits. As The Washington Post noted, adultery is a crime in the military, and thousands of Ashley Madison users had email addresses from the .mil domain. It’s impossible to say how many of the addresses are valid — Ashley Madison did not require users to verify their email addresses. But under military rules, service members found guilty of philandering can be punished by a year of confinement. They’re also subject to a dishonorable discharge, which would mean losing their pension.
For registered members of the site, the personal consequences could be dire. The data dump has already been turned into a searchable database, and the search results will be devastating. For some, it will confirm suspicions; for others who decide to check it on a lark, it may raise awful new questions. And that's true even though simply being registered for Ashley Madison tells you very little about a person. People have all sorts of arrangements in their relationships, and odds are they don't share that information with their friends and family. Put another way: plenty of people were using Ashley Madison with their partners' consent.
It’s likely that millions more people who registered for Ashley Madison never consummated an affair — among other things, the ratio of men to women on the site was roughly six to one, according to an analysis of the Impact Team data. That said, millions of people likely did use the site to seek partners outside their relationships. The cheaters will despair; relationships will end; children’s lives could be affected for the worse.
People could lose their jobs as a result
And the pain won’t end there — certain employers will react negatively to the knowledge that their employees were using the site, and people could lose their jobs as a result. Government employees who could become subject to blackmail, schoolteachers in more conservative districts, elected officials, CEOs — all of these could face professional consequences, along with anyone else who has a morals clause in their employment contract. And the results could follow them — expect this data to become included as a part of pre-employment background checks for years to come.
For those who never signed up for Ashley Madison, or had a partner who did, ethical questions will still come fast and furious. As John Herrman notes at The Awl, many of us will feel tempted to see which of our friends, family members, and coworkers may have registered for the site. When Target was hacked, few would have cared if it resulted in their purchase history being made searchable. Looking through the Ashley Madison data will be at least as tempting as looking through the leaked nude celebrity photos of last fall’s Celebgate hack. Only this time you’ll likely be looking not for a celebrity, but for someone you know. And what if you find something? How will you react? How will the person you’re snooping on? At various times, all of us are terrible in our own ways. What happens when those ways are easily searched on a public database?
What if you find something? How will you react?
The worst impact of the Ashley Madison breach will surely be personal: while incredibly common, cheating also upends people’s lives and can lead to personal and professional ruin. Hopefully it leads companies to adopt better privacy and security practices — Ashley Madison, for all its boasting, made several crucial errors in attempting to keep members’ information anonymous.
But if we’ve learned anything from the never-ending series of data breaches, it’s that over a long enough time period, all sites are likely to fall victim to hackers. And this raises yet more questions. In a world where we expect more of our communications to eventually be made public, will we begin to abandon certain apps or services en masse? Is it truly our responsibility to act as if everything we say will eventually become public, or can we hold companies responsible when they fail to protect our data? Can we pressure companies to purge more of our data on a regular basis, limiting our exposure risk in the likelihood of an eventual hack? Or will we once again shrug our shoulders at the seeming hopelessness of it all?
At this early stage, it’s impossible to say. And so we sit and stew about a future that could someday come to include a searchable online database of our emails, or our text messages, or our Tinder chats. We can hope that future never comes about, even though it seems to grow closer with every passing hack. In the meantime, two old adages would seem to apply. So prepare for the worst. And mind your own business.
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