3 Reasons Why The Ashley Madison Hack Is A Serious Affair

Dann Albright 25-08-2015

The Internet at large is positively ecstatic about the Ashley Madison hack Ashley Madison: What Happens Now We Know You're A Cheater The Ashley Madison dating site was recently hacked by hackers who threatened to leak the entire database unless the site closed. This week, the database has been leaked. Are your indiscretions about to become public? Read More . Millions of adulterers’ and potential adulterers’ information released online for everyone to see. Countless tweets about divorce lawyers, flower shops, and politicians. Public articles outing individuals found in the data dump. Hilarious, right?


Not so fast.

There are bigger issues at play here than just celebrating the potential destruction of millions of people’s lives.

1. We’re establishing a culture of privacy violation.

You may be thinking that you didn’t shame or bully Cyber Bullying Unmasked - The Tragic Case Of Cassidy Kids can be cruel. Almost as cruel as so-called grown-ups. That cruelty has found its way on to the web and into the lives of countless young people who thought they might be able to... Read More anyone—you just laughed about it on social media. But that doesn’t mean you’re not complicit. Impact Team made a token effort to make this about Ashley Madison’s less-than-stellar cancellation policy, and even called out “those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” to make it seem like this was a morally driven action.

3 Reasons Why The Ashley Madison Hack Is A Serious Affair am homepage

If you believe that Impact Team is trying to be the moral police of the Internet and did this because they thought it was a good thing, you’re fooling yourself. Groups like Impact Team 4 Top Hacker Groups And What They Want It's easy to think of hacker groups as some kind of romantic back-room revolutionaries. But who are they really? What do they stand for, and what attacks have they conducted in the past? Read More do these things because they can, and because they want attention. What kind of message are we sending by flooding the Internet with the sort of exuberant exultations that we’ve been seeing for the past week?


Positive reinforcement is a pretty basic principle in behavior modification — if you show someone that there’s going to be a positive reaction to what they’ve done, they’ll do it again. Which means we’re inviting Impact Team, or someone like them, to repeat this debacle. To violate the privacy of a group of individuals so we can laugh at them from our perceived moral high ground.

They’ve already attacked Ashley Madison. Who’s next? Who else could they target that the Internet would feel moral superiority over? Who might the Internet deride as a hypocrite? Pro-lifers who have visited an abortion clinic? Family bloggers who have had the police respond to domestic disturbance calls? Why wouldn’t these people be targets of groups like Impact Team?


And where do we draw the line? When would the Internet finally respond negatively to a hack like this? Let’s say a group releases adoption records and thousands of kids find out that they’re adopted. That might get a negative response. But does that response help those children? No. Are we willing to throw them under the bus so that we can laugh at all of the people who’ve been outed for things that make use feel better about ourselves?


This is what I mean about a culture of privacy violation. It’s becoming a form of entertainment—just think of the nude celebrity photos that were released after the iCloud attack How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations Read More earlier this year—and that’s a very, very dangerous road to start down.

2. Online shaming has real, significant consequences.

In 2002, Amel Guedroudj, a student at a high-caliber Scottish school, hung herself in her bathroom after pictures of her partially clothed were circulated on the Internet. She was highly intoxicated (and possibly unconscious) when six boys took photos of her. She was sixteen. She made a mistake, it got out online, and she killed herself.

Online shaming has resulted in lost jobs, death threats, doxing What Is Doxing & How Does It Affect Your Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] Internet privacy is a huge deal. One of the stated perks of the Internet is that you can remain anonymous behind your monitor as you browse, chat, and do whatever it is that you do.... Read More , and the loss of professional reputation. Most of these have been over incidents that have been, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor, like Lindsey Stone’s famous tweet of her being disrespectful at Arlington Cemetery. After her social media destruction (including a “Fire Lindsey Stone” page on Facebook that got 19,000 likes), Stone didn’t leave her house for a year and was afraid to date.



There haven’t been many stories about the consequences of the Ashley Madison hack, though it’s likely that we’ll start seeing more of them soon. This will be hugely appealing to many of the people who have responded with joy to this event. However, security writer Graham Cluley has cautioned the gleefully celebrating masses that we could see serious harm come because of this leak.

And, as many people have pointed out, many people who have used the site may not have had an affair. Email addresses weren’t verified, so someone could have used your email address to sign up. Some people considered having an affair, but never did. Some people engaged in emailing or chatting, but never met anyone. I’m not trying to excuse this behavior, but it could certainly change the context of someone’s interactions with Ashley Madison.


There’s almost always more to the story. These are multifaceted, complicated people that are unfairly reduced to the label “philanderer.” And there are other people who are affected. Spouses, children, friends, relatives, co-workers . . . there’s no telling how far these effects can go. Is that something you want to have been complicit in?


If you want to know more about the effects of online shaming, read Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. You’ll be amazed at the cruelty of Internet denizens and just how serious the effects of these actions can be.

3. You’re next.

What have you done that you’re embarrassed about? Do you have a DUI somewhere in your past? Did you get fired for sleeping with your boss’s wife or husband? Is there a police record that shows a picture of your spouse with a black eye?

A huge number of people have things they’d like to keep in the past. You got arrested at an extremist rally during college. You put someone in the hospital when you ran a stoplight. You donated money 7 Apps and Websites to Help You Give Money to Charity Give more money to charity and become a more engaged human citizen by using these 7 apps and websites. Read More to a cause you no longer support and that’s condemned by the popular media. How would you feel if your boss called you into their office and asked you about it? Or if your kids told you that their friends at school knew about it?


Just about everyone has something they want to hide, and there’s almost certainly evidence of it somewhere online. And when it gets released, those people are going to be indignant when the rest of the Internet laughs at them for it. Do you think the Internet wouldn’t laugh at some scarring event in your past? Take a look at this quote from Glenn Greenwald about how The Scarlet Letter lives on today and replace “sexual acts” with pretty much anything else:

“Busybodies sitting in judgment of and righteously condemning the private, sexual acts of other adults remains one of the most self-satisfying and entertaining – and thus most popular – public spectacles. It simultaneously uplifts the moral judges (I am superior to that which I condemn), distracts them from their own behaviors (I am focused on those other people’s sins, and thus not my own), and titillates (to condemn this, I simply must immerse myself in the tawdry details of their sexual acts). To see just how current is the mentality driving [T]he Scarlet Letter, observe the reaction to the Ashley Madison hack.”

Think about that after the next big data breach. Do you want to be a part of the Internet culture that praises groups for violating the privacy of other people’s lives? Do you want to be a part of the swath of society that’s keeping the times of The Scarlet Letter alive?

Think Twice

We’re big on advocating for online privacy here, and many of our readers are, as well. It’s been disconcerting to see thousands of people celebrating a violation of privacy over the past week when we’ve worked so hard to convince them that privacy is something worth fighting for. And if it’s worth fighting for, there can’t be exceptions for the purposes of entertainment and moral self-aggrandizement.

So think twice about laughing at Ashley Madison. And prepare yourself for the consequences of thousands of other people’s laughter.

Image credits: Ashley Madisonhikcrn via Shutterstock.comThe Guardian, dotshock via, Ioannis Pantzi via

Related topics: Hacking, Online Privacy.

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  1. Sucker For Trustinher
    August 29, 2017 at 6:40 am

    For me it would easy to condemn "cheaters" as someone who has always been faithful even though I've been cheated on I could care less really if these people are exposed .Still its a slippery slope when it comes to online privacy and its much like our freedom of speech in that its an ALL OR NOTHING deal you dont get to pick and choose when your for it and when your against it....

  2. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 11:59 am

    These people have ruined their own lives, when they did something this stupid. And I for one am not laughing about it - I think their behaviour is disgusting.

    • Dann Albright
      August 29, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      These people certainly did something that had the potential to have disastrous consequences for their lives, but I still don't think that means they should be used as a form of entertainment. You can feel superior and call them disgusting and pretend you have the moral high ground, and that's your right—but making them the laughing stock of the internet just isn't a good idea, for all the reasons outlined above. That's what I was trying to say with this article.

      • Mihir Patkar
        August 30, 2015 at 5:44 am

        Totally agree with Dann's point here.

      • v1adimir
        May 3, 2018 at 11:47 pm

        Btw., it's an assumption about pretending over moral high ground, but 9/10 times (or, more often than not) it's true.

        So, people get all high and mighty with their comments, but how is it perceived... Who, ever, thinks about the consequences.

        I don't know that person any more that they know somebody from the database (or, the hacker team; I believe it's called "gang-banging" on the street. ;))

        Yeah, so, without trying to write an essay: it may not be so black and white; as nothing ever is. Not to mention everything else talked about in the article.

  3. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 9:58 am

    The privacy issue is extremely serious that most people fail to consider. The article accurately states that while individual actions may be considered deplorable, the consequences of revelations of privacy matters are more important, for the revelations will not stop deplorable actions. The article says it all and is right on in describing the issues.

    • Dann Albright
      August 29, 2015 at 7:19 pm

      I'm glad you found the article to be right on!

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 1:27 am

    This kind of shaming isn't limited to the Internet. The media takes what people say out of context all the time and shame them. Remember when Trent Lott praise Strom Thurmond at his birthday party and they turned that into a veiled endorsement of segregation? What about the guy at Mozilla that lost his job because he supported California's Prop 8?

    There is one side of the political spectrum that benefits from shaming people because they don't have a better argument.

    • Dann Albright
      August 29, 2015 at 7:18 pm

      No, this kind of shaming isn't limited to the internet, but it does make it a lot easier. I'm not really sure what you're getting at here, though . . . are you just bashing the political party you don't identify with? Or are you saying something related to the article?

  5. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    I agree with the gist of the story, but how about blaming Ashley Madison for not living up to their paid feature to delete posts, their shoddy security, and for their "outrageous in general" website - making it a prime target for hackers.

    • Dann Albright
      August 29, 2015 at 7:17 pm

      Ashley Madison could be blamed for their security measures, though from what I've heard, they're actually pretty good, and an insider could be to blame for this breach. Not deleting people's information is bad. Really bad. Blaming Ashley Madison for being an "outrageous in general" website and making themselves a target? I don't think that's fair. There are plenty of sites that are outrageous but haven't resulted in this sort of tragic leak, shaming, and life ruining.

      Also, the article isn't about blame. That's part of the point.

      • Anonymous
        August 29, 2015 at 7:59 pm

        Well - the article is mostly about how bad internet shaming is, and I would say takes the perpetrator to task. I would think that qualifies as some kind of blame. Not trying to disagree with you.

        I work for a non-profit healthcare organization - our security measures include disabling of outside email and USB ports - so no flash drives, etc and no (easy) method to extract and remove gigs of data.

        Sure - they are allowed to run a site like that - but I guess my point was they should have known they would be a target for this kind of insider and / or hacking attack. One last thing on the matter - it's public knowledge now that the CEO himself encouraged the hacking of a competitor. The entire operation can be categorized as sleazy at best. I understand that still doesn't make this type of data extraction fair game - just somewhat akin to karma. Not for the users - but for top management.

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 30, 2015 at 5:38 am

          I don't entirely agree with Al, but there's a good point in there. If you are indulging in immoral/illegal activities and someone outs you, is that a bad thing? An affair is grounds for divorce, I guess it's a breach of contract, legally speaking. If you're breaking the law and I say "Those guys are breaking the law", is that a bad thing?

        • Dann Albright
          August 31, 2015 at 12:49 pm

          Mihir, that's an issue I've been thinking about a lot in the wake of this attack. To be honest, I have no idea. I go back and forth. One the one hand, the longer someone engages in adultery, the more harm it's likely to cause their partner. On the other hand, a lot of marriages can survive something like that, and I don't know if it coming out in this way would hamper their chances of continuing in the marriage. And there might be people out there whose relationships would be best served if it just never came out. But there's no way to know. And in a general sense, I do agree with you . . . this isn't something that should happen, and it shouldn't stay covered up, either.

          Basically what it's come down to for me is that it's just no right of mine (or anyone else's) to determine when and how this information comes out.

          As you can see, I have a lot of conflicting thoughts. What do you think?

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 31, 2015 at 1:16 pm

          I'm totally with you on this, and I'm so, so happy that you're appreciating the nuance and layers involved in something like this. Marriage is more complicated than the black-and-white situation being suggested in several articles about this topic.

          That said, as far as the expectation of privacy in this goes, I'm not so certain. If you are doing something wrong and someone who isn't your lawyer outs you, I'm not sure there is a legal expectation of privacy.

        • Dann Albright
          September 2, 2015 at 9:50 pm

          Mihir, I'm glad you appreciate the levels of nuance I'm trying to write about here. That was definitely one of my goals. :-)

          Also, I wasn't necessarily talking about legal rights to privacy—I was thinking more about ethical ones. I mean, if I see someone doing something wrong, am I obligated to inform someone? In the case of breaking the law, I'm probably legally obligated. But in the case of something like adultery, should I take it upon myself to be the enforcer of moral standards?

          I'm not saying that the answer is "no" . . . I'm just not totally convinced that it's my place to do that. To be completely honest, I still have no idea how I feel about that particular issue. Before writing this article, I might have had a solid stance, but now, seeing how complicated the whole situation is, and thinking through the consequences for a number of different people, I'm not so sure. Do you see what I mean?

        • Mihir Patkar
          September 3, 2015 at 7:12 am

          Totally. The more I think about it, the more the area seems grey than black or white.

        • Dann Albright
          August 31, 2015 at 12:43 pm

          Sounds like your non-profit has its digital security down! More companies should do things like that; I think the internet would be a safer place for it. Also, I'm not familiar with the CEO-encouraging-hacking thing; that hasn't come up in my research. What's the story with that? That's very interesting.

  6. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Call Me What You Will.

    The Only Thing That Will Never Come Back, Are The People That Committed Suicide.

    Why Taking Your Own Life, Because Of This ?

    Did You Lose Your Only Lifetime Chance Of A Sugar Daddy Or Sugar Mommy ?

    Grow Up, For Christ Sake.

    Stop Crying Me A River.

    Yes, You Made A Huge Mistake, But Learn With It And Move On.

    You Knew All Along You Could Get Caught, But You Never Stopped The Russian Roulette Gambling.

    Sorry, Absolutely No Sympathy Here.

  7. Anonymous
    August 26, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    People can only shame you if you feel ashamed. We make our own demons.

    Sure, Impact Team can go eff off for being self-righteous about this, but the truth is this was way too easy.

    Even if we could guarantee total privacy for even the worst of us, these people didn't even VPN, no anonymous throw away names. Seriously, how hard is it to buy a visa check card with cash and use a throw away e-mail? My god people...

    Make peace with yourself, its not healthy to have dirt in your closet and sit around all puckered in hopes no one finds out.

    We need to give each other break and take a deep breath. I think a famous comedian once said something like "One-hundred percent of people cheat if given the opportunity". Sorry if that hurts your naive view of humanity and whatever invisible sky god you serve, but we're all just trying to sling our genetic material anyway we can, this is yet another excellent of why the entire utopian "victorian style marriage" mommy and daddy love each other for life nonsense needs to go die in a fire, it has no baring on reality. Daddy is porking the neighbor and mommy is drinking Franzia and sexting her boss, get the hell over it. Those thirty million people are just dumb, they are not unlike any of us, period.

  8. Anonymous
    August 26, 2015 at 7:51 am

    What really bothers me is that the kids today don't know anything other than the internet. Everything is online. Their paycheck stubs, their banking, paying bills, EVERYTHING. They don't know HOW to do do it any other way. Hell, I'm 54 years old and I'm not sure that I know how to do it any other way nowadays, other than my water bill. I still have to pay it by check or cash. But hackers have proved time & time again that they can get into anything they want to if they want to bad enough. Everyone is all about going "paperless". The internet is everything. What happens if we have that big "burst" that makes the whole internet thing go away? Call me stupid, old fashioned, whatever, but I worry about our kids and their future....

    • Anonymous
      August 28, 2015 at 12:27 am

      The internet does making doing a lot of things easier and cheaper. However, I still have stamps just in case.

    • Dann Albright
      August 29, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      I'm not sure exactly what you're addressing here . . . are you saying that these people should have communicated with their lovers via the post or the phone?

  9. Anonymous
    August 25, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Very few people grasped the implications of the hack and of the Impact Group. The vast majority of people had the knee-jerk reaction of "Serves the bastards right."

    • Dann Albright
      August 26, 2015 at 3:14 am

      It's hard not to have that reaction; it's definitely a natural one. Adultery is clearly one of the most frowned-upon moral transgressions in our society, and we believe that people should be punished for it. And if it was just punishment, that might be fine. But, as I pointed out here, there's a lot more to the whole situation.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Guy McDowell
      August 26, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      It's worth noting that most people who had that reaction also said things like, "These men that cheat on their wives deserve to get caught."

      They obviously missed the part where the site is for married men and women to have affairs with other married men and women. Strictly speaking, that kind of response is sexist.

      I thought we were trying to get beyond sexism.

      • Anonymous
        August 26, 2015 at 5:10 pm

        "I thought we were trying to get beyond sexism."
        There you go, thinking again! :-) Dontcha know that wives do not cheat on their husbands?! They just have their emotional needs satisfied by people other than their husbands.

        We are trying to get past many issues and vices but we just ain't making it. Our deeply ingrained prejudices keep getting in the way.

        Couple of days ago some woman wrote in a letter to Dear Abby that "she was almost 100% sure that her husband was cheating on her" because he lied about his whereabouts. She tracked his location via the GPS on his phone to the building where a female co-worker of his lived. Out of the over 250 comments about the letter, only three said "Make sure that he is actually cheating". All others said "Nail the cheating sleazebag SOB!!!"

        • Dann Albright
          August 29, 2015 at 7:08 pm

          This is a very personal issue that people feel strongly about, which, I think, is why we so quickly and easily fall back on prejudices when we talk about it. Adultery is a big deal, and a lot of people have experience (directly or indirectly) with it, and it's very emotional. It's not easy to think about these things calmly and rationally right away, which is why I was hoping to generate these kinds of conversations with this article. Thanks for your comment!

  10. Anonymous
    August 25, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Very effective read. I'm ashamed to admit my first reaction to the news was "serves them right" but i regret this. Our local newspaper reported 2 suicides so far. This type of .....breach is unstoppable so kiss the privacy rights goodbye. We must go back to paper checks to pay bills, visit the tellers for banking and hand write communications using the postal services. Its too damn bad we can't stop this because a secure internet was made in heaven.

    • Anonymous
      August 25, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      "a secure internet was made in heaven."
      And exists only there.

    • Dann Albright
      August 26, 2015 at 3:11 am

      There's no need to be ashamed; it's an easy and very understandable knee-jerk reaction. I was afraid that suicide stories would start showing up, and I'm very sad to hear that they have. I don't know if going back to paper would help or not, but maybe we should think about it for some forms of communication!