The Ashley Madison hack and the importance of protecting online secrets

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The tagline for Ashley Madison, the recently hacked dating site for affair seekers, reads, "Life is short. Have an affair." I'm not sure a lot of married people have affairs because life is short. My limited experience suggests quite the opposite: spouses often cheat because married life can feel very long indeed.

I would have had more sympathy for the hack, which captured data on 37 million Ashley Madison users, had it aimed to seek specific adulterers for blackmail, extortion, or even the revelation of hypocrisy in the public interest. At least then the hackers would have joined the pantheon of those who have used knowledge of spousal infidelities for some gain — be it personal wealth, or, say the downfall of a homophobic politician.

Alas, the hackers demanded only that the site be shut down, threatening to make all the user data public, because the site owners were charging users to delete profiles. We've learned a valuable lesson about cheating — don't do it on a cheating website. We have also been reminded again of the importance of preserving and defending not just privacy online, but secrecy, too.


I'm not defending Ashley Madison because I approve of lying, or don't understand that affairs can ruin lives. Ideally, cheating wouldn't happen and non-monogamy would be navigated with honesty and care. Multifarious desires would be explored, accepted and fulfilled. If you think that's easily achieved, please keep your thoughts to the playa at Burning Man.

The problem with the hack, specifically the hackers' threat, was that it was indiscriminate with regards to outing all the users. The hack bolsters a dangerous transparency ethic, asserting that if people have something to hide, they shouldn't be doing it. It's this exact ethic that meant major tech companies would work in concert with the government to create and uphold the vast surveillance nexus under (and through) which we live.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2009, "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place" — that was before Ed Snowden's leaks made it somewhat more embarrassing for tech firms to dismiss user privacy. The very same principle undergirds Facebook's ill-thought "real" names policy, which particularly has harmed trans individuals, drag performers and sex workers who have very strong reasons to use chosen names in public forums.

Silicon Valley scions have the privilege and freedom to explore polyamory, kink and non-heterotypical sexuality, but it takes offensive myopia not to understand that many people have very good reasons to keep parts of their lives, lived online and off, hidden. This certainly holds true for undocumented immigrants and individuals with criminal records, too. Until we demolish the structures that punish these groups, we should not decry secrets.


Suffice it to say that there is such a thing as public interest trumping individual privacy. It's of the utmost interest to a public seeking to fight white supremacy that Ferguson police were sending racist emails; it's in the interest of a public seeking equality to reveal that a politician opposing gay marriage because of straight marriage's alleged sanctity has had affairs.

I fail to see how public interest, or any interest of ethical or political worth to the general public, is served by outing a media executive for paying a gay porn star for sex — the furor over Gawker's decision to publish such a story last month is rightful. And certainly, the outing of 37 million adulterers is not in the public interest.


I wonder if the Ashley Madison hackers thought of gay individuals who might feel stuck within a straight marriage; or just desperately unhappy married people who feel trapped for whatever familial, emotional or financial reasons. Those who revel in the idea of the Ashley Madison cheaters being outed, as a matter of just desserts, align adultery with immorality in a way that elevates marriage as a moral good, tout court.

We might point to the gendered history of men benefitting more from extra-marital affairs than women, but, firstly, the same criticism should be leveled at the patriarchal institution of marriage. And, secondly, married women use Ashley Madison, too. I also submit that there is something more honest about choosing this site than simply cheating the old fashioned way, with OKCupid. In the internal universe of an infidelity site, liars tell the truth about being liars.


In Samuel Beckett's dizzying short play, named “Play,” which explores adultery, the very specific stage directions demand that the three stock characters, man, mistress, and long-term partner, are seen to the audience only as heads popping out of large funeral urns. The voices splutter at high speed in unintelligible chorus, then individually in rapid burst. Each character is buried and stuck. The play repeats itself. "Faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns," Beckett's directions dictate.


I think of 37 million urns, a great graveyard of unexceptional affairs, some despicable, some necessary. Beckett was dictatorial about his staging for a reason. The hackers threaten to expose adulterers without the ethical insight of showing the ancient funeral casings, the entrenched subject positions in which they might be trapped.

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