The hack of the Toronto-based infidelity site reveals uncomfortable truths about the society in which we live.
— Ashley Madison (@ashleymadison) July 19, 2015
“Life is short. Have an affair.”
Ashley Madison’s emoticon shrug of a slogan may never have felt so loaded as it does now. The site’s ongoing data dump, courtesy of a hacker group that calls itself the Impact Team, culminated with the release last week of a few of the company CEO’s email addresses. But since July, the reveal has been a train wreck eagerly watched through parted-curtain fingers, prompting a melange of guilty delight (cheaters = bad!), cringey sympathy, and rightful horror at the tenuous security we all have in common. Adulterers or otherwise, our digital secrets are anything but safe.
As Heather Havrilesky put it in New York Magazine:
In the bad old days (and today, in impoverished or corrupt places), the mob often rules in matters of morality because the state doesn’t have the resources to enforce the laws of the land. And in some ways, all of that ’90s-era talk about the internet as a kind of “Wild West” of unknown, ungovernable virtual space has finally come to fruition. As Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum write in The Future of Violence, thanks to the wide distribution of advanced technology these days, the means of disruption and attack are now dispersed across the population. Threats from hackers (and drones!) can come from any corner of the globe, and can affect anyone on the globe. No matter how much any of us claims to have nothing to hide, the fact remains that we’re all vulnerable—and hacking is the tip of the iceberg. Anyone with an email account, a credit card, a Wi-Fi connection, or health records online is exposed.
The Ashley Madison leak, of course, just drives home a point that most of us have likely long suspected to be true: that ’80s one-hit-wonder Rockwell was onto something with his proto-web-age paranoia.
As the hack’s aftershocks continue their course of reverberation, something like destruction has trailed in their wake. Two suicides might be traced directly to the unmasking of the site’s more than 30 million users, according to the Toronto police, in addition to possible hate crimes and extortion. Toronto staff superintendent Bryce Evans said yesterday at a press conference that “the ripple effect of the Impact Team’s actions has and will continue to have long-term social and economic impacts and they have already sparked spin-offs of crimes and further victimization.” In this growing web of marital infidelity, data theft, and possible social and economic bullying, only the actual cheating has proven to be legal. This is the social cost of avenging the fall-outs of monogamy. This is its potential body count.
Being cheated on feels terrible; finding one’s own affections illicitly divided isn’t a bundle of fun, either. And while it’s easy to bask in the schadenfreude of, say, public moralists’ private hypocrisies, we’d be wise to first consider our own.