Since news broke yesterday that millions of hacked records from infidelity dating site Ashley Madison had leaked onto torrent sites, a handful of websites have popped up to make searching through that data easier. On https://ashley.cynic.al/, for example, you can plug in an email address and it will tell you if the person affiliated with that address was found in the leaked records. The creator of the website tells us that in the last 24 hours, it has gotten over 300,000 visitors who have performed more than a million searches.
He sent us the visitor analytics from the last 24 hours, which shows the largest number of queries coming from the U.S., Canada, and Israel.
People are finding their friends, family members, and romantic partners in the databases. BuzzFeed reporter Ellen Cushing first searched for her dad's email address (which wasn't in the database), and then for her ex-boyfriend's (which was). Because some people were insane enough to use their work email addresses on the site, reporters have found hundreds of bankers among the Ashley Madison users, dozens of lawyers, and thousands of government officials. According to Advisor Hub, the personal fallout is already happening:
A source on the west coast: “guys wife just walked into the office and slammed a paper on his desk. Paper was his profile on Ashley Madison with a FUCK YOU written across the top. Then she just walked out. Wow.”
The ease of checking the Ashley Madison database for a match raises a much tougher ethical question: even if you can check to see who was using Ashley Madison, should you?
If you are married or in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and you feel the need to check to see whether your partner is in the leak, that says one of two things. (1) It either means your partner is cheating on you (whether on Ashley Madison or elsewhere), because when you have that worry in the back of your head that something is going on, it often does means that something is going on. Or (2) You are in a relationship that is unsatisfying in some deep way that likely means you shouldn't be in the relationship. Either way, the simple desire to search means you have problems to address.
There have been many, many data dumps of late that have become publicly searchable. You could go to Imgur and see celebs' nudes after the iCloud hack. You can go to Wikileaks to peruse the emails of Sony Pictures employees. But with the Ashley Madison dump, it's not the secrets of the rich, famous and powerful that we're seeking out but secrets from our communities: whether people that we know, that we love, that we once loved, that we are related to, that we work with, or that we live near are among the millions who used a dating site that explicitly offered the promise of infidelity.
As someone's neighbor or colleague or relative, do you really want to invade their privacy and know whether they were on this site? Do you want to have that knowledge in the back of your mind? As Quartz pointed out, it's going to make life more awkward for you as you grapple with pretending you don't know or figuring out how to reveal you do. And of course there is the possibility that you'll find the information of someone you know in the hack who is not actually a user, say if someone else used their email address to sign up, as happened to an Intercept reporter.
"I suggest we stay out of other people’s bedrooms, even when the lurid details of those bedrooms are on a platter for us on the Internet," writes lawyer Carrie Goldberg (via Jed Bracy). "[Do we] really condone the idea that the right to privacy should be on a continuum based on a person’s moral turpitude?"
As someone's partner, you probably feel entitled to look. After all, it directly affects you and your relationship. But even if your partner is in there, you might not find him or her. When my colleague talked to 24 Ashley Madison users whose deets showed up in the hack, at least one told her he used an email address his wife doesn't know about. So if you do feel compelled to search, where does it stop? If your partner's email is open on the computer, should you go ahead and look through it? If they leave their phone on the table, should you snoop and make sure there are no strange calls or texts?
Thanks to a development of the modern age—the massive collection of digital information that can be raided and then easily published—we are being given a power that used to only belong to the surveillance state. We have the ability to look through vast amounts of information that will quickly reveal to us whether people have committed what we consider to be crimes. How should we treat that power? Should we indulge our curiosity and suspicions? Should we embrace these Little Brother surveillance powers, giving ourselves the right to peer into spaces that were meant to be private? Or would we be better off averting our eyes and saving the decision to search for when someone really deserves the scrutiny?
These will be questions that we will ask ourselves again and again, as hackers continue to break into databases and bring information that was meant to be private into the painfully bright light of the open Internet. The Fourth Amendment was created so we wouldn't have to live in a completely transparent society where the government gets to know what people are doing whenever it wants. If we decide to indulge our curiosity every time a hack happens, we may start to live in a citizen-sustained surveillance state where there is no protection from 'unreasonable searches' by those in our lives. Maybe that will lead to a better, more well-behaved society, or maybe it will be more oppressive than the founding fathers could have ever dreamed.