In Defense of Ashley Madison: Even Cheaters Deserve Privacy

It’s pretty hard to summon sympathy for the privacy hack if you’ve ever been the partner wounded by another’s affair. The hookup website that made a fortune facilitating “discreet” encounters between those committed elsewhere learned on Monday that a team of hackers have downloaded the entire contents of its office and production domains. This includes the details of more than 37 million affair-seeking users across 30 countries, data that adds to mere names and addresses both photographs and recorded sexual fantasies.

The hackers are calling themselves the “Impact Team” and they’re demanding Ashley Madison and its partner site Established Men close down. The hack has beenverified by Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s corporate owners, and the Impact Team has already published some data online. While ALM has successfully removed much of it, the hackers are promising far more to come.

A karmic comeuppance seems due in particular to ALM, whose trade, practice and marketing philosophy have done very little to endear them to the non-affair-seeking public. Founder Noel Biderman insists that his company does not promote infidelity, despite advertising Ashley Madison under the slogan, “Life is short. Have an Affair.”

“We’re just a platform,” Biderman has said. “No website or 30-second ad is going to convince anyone to cheat.” This may very well be true but it doesn’t really explain its marketing strategy that courts controversy in order to generate press coverage.

In addition to rejected attempts to purchase naming rights for airports in cash-strapped American cities, ALM’s schtick has included: a zombie-and-domestic-violence themed television ad that failed to meet advertising standards in the UK; an American billboard mocking Hillary Clinton; and ads fat-shaming plus-sized women as a justification for infidelity. When a plus-sized model named Jacqueline publicly criticised the company’s use of her image to fat-shame, ALM’s response was extraordinary: “The best thing that could’ve happened to this woman is that we used her in our ad.”

Morally dubious behaviour is not just the company’s unique selling point, but emerges as something of a theme in its business practices. Ashley Madison’s guarantee “that you will successfully find what you’re looking for or we’ll give you your money back” is restricted by small-print conditions predicated on the purchase of premium packages and gifts sold through the site, in addition to paid chat sessions and onerous reporting obligations.

On a website where usage is 70% male, the illusion of available women is sustained by the company’s habit of delivering users computer-generated messages from fake profiles that “are NOT conspicuously identified as such,” but for which they may charge users to respond to “for entertainment purposes”. But what has incited the vengeance of the Impact Team is the company’s promise of a “full delete” service of user profiles for around US$19, that in fact, never takes place.

“Full Delete netted ALM $1.7m in revenue in 2014,” wrote the hackers, who allege names, addresses and credit card details are never scrubbed, “It’s also a complete lie.”

It’s easy enough to suggest in these circumstances that a company that makes its money from encouraging duplicity and betrayal is somewhat likely to reflect these values in its operations, and that maybe users should have seen this coming.

But as enjoyable as schadenfreude is to the scorned, the mass scale of the hack attack has to be recognised for what it is: a gross invasion of privacy. Whatever is discussed by whoever is on that site, the personal content now in the possession of the hackers is the consented sexual conversations of adults to which no one else was invited, and mocking their situation amounts to victim-blaming.

The duplicities of cheating partners might be reprehensible – but the complexities of human relations are such that no hacker or public audience has any right to stand in moral judgement of Ashley Madison’s 37 million account holders. An anonymous commenter on one website spoke of using Ashley Madison’s services “just so (I) won’t die feeling so unloved”, and an investigation by a relationships writer concluded users “just wanted to feel what they used to feel”.

These are the intimacies seized by the hackers. For all ALM’s faults, in exposing Ashley Madison’s lack of privacy protections in this way, the Impact Team have threatened that very privacy with more destructive potential than that company ever has. Ashley Madison may be a morally dubious enterprise, and the emotional wreckage left by lies within relationships keenly felt ... but if we don’t condemn this attack on privacy, the moral fault here is our own.

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