Ashley Madison, a dating and social media website that caters to married people looking to engage in adulterous relationships, provides users with a place to chat, exchange photos, discuss fantasies, etc. The slogan for the site, which boasts that it has over 37 million users, is “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” Customers sign up for the marital-affairs website with the understanding that their privacy will be protected; in fact, many users pay an additional fee to “ensure” that their personal information is scrubbed from the site and can never be accessed by third parties.
But there’s a problem. Earlier this week, Ashley Madison was hacked by the so-called “Impact Team,” a group of hackers attempting to extort the company, but not for money. They want Ashley Madison to shut down, and they are threatening to expose its users’ private information, including addresses and credit card information—unless, that is, the site disappears from the Internet.
Certainly, there are those who will find it difficult to muster sympathy for Ashley Madison or its users. Nonetheless, the case brings a greater, wide-reaching issue to light: the ease by which hackers can invade our privacy. Privacy invasion is a serious concern, especially given the fact that most people regularly purchase goods and services on e-commerce sites, use social media to connect with friends and family, or upload resumes full of personal information to company websites and job aggregators like Indeed.com. Realistically, nothing we post online can be 100 percent protected.
Still, when a website like Ashley Madison charges the user a fee to guarantee privacy and then does not follow through, the company could be held liable. Although Ashley Madison has issued a statement assuring customers that their information is indeed protected, time will tell if that is accurate. Certainly, Ashley Madison users cannot feel secure until they see if the promise of anonymity—a promise they paid for—is kept.
Looking at the situation from another angle, however, reveals a group of people who might profit from the data breach: divorce lawyers and marriage therapists. After all, releasing the names of Ashley Madison’s users means that non-users of the site would discover their spouses’ infidelity and file for divorce, right? Actually, maybe not.
First of all, many people commit adultery, sometimes even with their spouse’s knowledge, yet remain married (and open relationships are increasingly popular as well). Second, even if a marriage ends as a result of the Ashley Madison data disclosure, the non-cheating spouse may not hold any advantage in a divorce proceeding. Most states recognize no-fault divorce, which means that neither party has to prove wrongdoing in order to divorce. Furthermore, proof of adultery does not mean that the non-cheating spouse will receive greater financial benefits in a divorce settlement or that the legal proceedings will be more complicated or costly as a result. Since their primary job is to determine the best way to divide marital property, courts tend to evaluate divorce cases from a purely economic standpoint.
But regardless of potential divorce lawyer profits, the bottom line is that severe penalties must be imposed to deter future hackers. Whether Ashley Madison or a more benign website is hacked, there should be zero tolerance for this kind of online criminal activity. Enacting a no-tolerance policy is especially crucial in cases where the hacker is possibly a former employee of the website, as may be the case here.
Even in the digital age, the old adage “buyer beware” still applies. Before using a website, posting on social media, or sending an email, consider the ramifications, and consider whether the private information you are providing is really secure. Although we expect privacy in our Internet use, the reality is that we all need to conduct ourselves as if exposure is inevitable.
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