There must be lots of folks like me in the leaked Ashley Madison database. The Toronto-based online dating and social networking site for adulterers has been in the news since last April, when parent company Avid Life Media announced their goal of raising $200 million for an IPO that they hoped would take place in London sometime this fall. On July 15, a group calling itself the Impact Team hacked the site, threatening to release users names and other identifying information if it was not shut down immediately.
I never actually created an Ashley Madison account. But I have thought about it. I am not looking for a diversion from my marriage, which is less than a year old. I am researching a book on the history of courtship and sex and how the economy and technology have changed them over the past hundred years. I have always been the kind of pervert who may not go through with things, but likes to stay well informed about the latest in sexual transgressions; anyway, I do not think adultery, which a person may have many valid reasons to commit, necessarily makes the Pervert List. I have seen enough of Ashley Madison to know that it only takes thirty seconds to create a profile and that they don’t even verify your email—which means that I could have registered myself as literally anyone. You may very well be in there.
For weeks, Impact Team and Ashley Madison went back and forth. The hackers claimed that they had authentic user data; Ashley Madison denied it; the hackers posted several thousand names. One of the tricky things about all stats concerning dating sites is that it is difficult to know for sure how may members a site has—the site reports it, and given that their main asset is their user base they have every interest in giving the highest number possible—and besides it is hard to know what an account means. At all dating sites many people create accounts out of curiosity and never or rarely use them or forget to delete them when they have partnered off or given up. There are ghosts of cheaters past lingering guiltily all over the twilight of the Internet.
Then, yesterday, as threatened, the hackers dumped 9.7 gigabytes of data to the dark web using a .onion address accessible through Tor browser. Wired reported last night that the files appeared to include account details and log-ins for around 32 million users, as well as seven years of credit card information and other transaction details going back to 2007. Shortly before midnight, the former Washington Post reporter and cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs, who broke news of the original hack, confirmed on Twitter:
There is something almost quaint about Ashley Madison in an age where open and “monogamish” relationships—as the wonderful Dan Savage dubbed them—are becoming more and more the norm. Given that you could use Tinder or Grinder or OkCupid or any number of other above board dating sites, or your local bar for that matter, as a platform to find fellow philanderers, Ashley Madison reminds us of what politicians like Anthony Weiner must periodically re-teach us. It is not that people do stupid things for sex despite the risk. It is that risk itself is sexy. The thrill of knowingly betraying a cherished convention is the specific product that Ashley Madison traffics in.
People in this day and age remain deeply attached to the idea that monogamous marriage is a sacred institution that transcends all times and places (see the Supreme Court opinion on gay marriage) and maybe even species (as the anthropomorphic projections onto animals that make hits out of films like March of the Penguins suggest). Any historian or biologist could tell you that this is not so. The idea that marriage is a private contract between two individuals based on mutual affection, and intended primarily to promote their happiness, is only about two hundred years old. In an earlier era, whether you belonged to the ruling aristocracy or the laboring classes who toiled their land, social order depended upon your marrying someone whose family could cooperate with yours—to preserve fragile political bonds or to work your farmland. Your marriage was, therefore, a matter of legitimate concern to your extended family. In Christian countries, it was usually solemnized as an irreversible change in status—not a contract that individuals could revoke at will. (What God has joined let no man separate etc.)
The rise of the love marriage had everything to do with massive changes in the economy during the Industrial Revolution. It seems that during the Digital Revolution, marriage is in a moment of transition again. At such moments of transition that privacy is especially important. Privacy serves as a buffer to create room for interpretation as institutions evolve and frames of reference shift. Many kinds of personal meaning depend on context. I might be fine with my husband knowing—just hypothetically—that I watch tons of ethically produced alt-girl porn. I might also not want to telegraph that fact to all my relatives and students.
Whether or not we happen to be among the particular “dirtbags” who have signed up for the company’s service, we should all be freaked out. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, Jesus said. We all produce data through our online activities everyday that we have good reasons to want to keep private. Sometimes there is an argument to be made for betraying privacy because doing so serves the public interest. As Natasha Lennard argued eloquently over at Fusion when news of the Ashley Madison leak first broke, this is not one of those times. In 2013, Edward Snowden inspired a broad, and badly overdue public conversation about how much access the government should have to private data. However, the law still lags behind the platforms that many of us use every day. The conversation around Ashley Madison will no doubt be the first of many.
Hackers often appropriate a language of transparency and access that may sound democratic but is in fact proto-totalitarian. The claim that no zone of privacy should separate an individual from the keen eye of discipline was, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued back in the 1950s, one of the common features of last century’s most terrifying political regimes. The Ashley Madison case, where the hackers have combined the rhetoric of transparency with moralizing Victorian language seems like a particularly clear-cut example of using such language for the purposes of bullying and blackmail. On the one hand, Impact Team impugned Avid Life Media for not doing a better job of protecting user data; On the other, they described the users themselves as “cheating dirtbags” who do not deserve to have their privacy protected.
No doubt some lives will be destroyed by yesterday's revelation. But hopefully the greater long-term impact of the leak will be to make everyone more aware of how much data we are giving away for free constantly, and how much money it is making for other people. It should certainly encourage us to be more circumspect about which corporations we decide to entrust it to.