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Privacy in the Tech Age
Ashley Madison and the New Web Anarchists

In January, we noted that 2014 was the year that the internet, with its troves of personal data, private corporate communications, and state secrets, began to “slip out of control”:

The snoops, the spies, and the cybercrooks spent last year consolidating a tight hold on the commanding heights of the worldwide web, even as more of our lives moved online. The global internet was supposed to be a transformational agent of human empowerment, but in 2014 it became clear that it is also an incredibly powerful weapon against which national governments, corporations and, yes, you, have no practical defense. 

These “snoops, spies, and cybercrooks” have a wide range of motives and agendas. Some are moralistic, some are selfish, and some, like the Joker from Batman, probably “want to watch the world burn.” WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is a left-wing anti-government extremist; the Sony hackers appear to have been totalitarian puppets of North Korea; the JP Morgan hackers were fraudsters in it for the money. And now, with the unfolding story that hackers have posted the personal information of all members of Ashley Madison (a website for married adults looking to have affairs) the world may be faced with its first high-profile social conservative hacker-activists, or perhaps its first feminist hackers, or perhaps simply Joker-anarchists, depending on how you parse their statements and ultimatums.

“Too bad for these men, they’re cheating dirtbags”, the hackers wrote last month. “Find yourself in here? It was ALM [Avid Live Media, Ashley Madison’s parent company] that failed you and lied to you. Prosecute them and claim damages. Then move on with your life. Learn your lesson and make amends”, they said in a recent statement accompanying the released data. Are the hackers trying to punish the company, or teach its unfaithful users a lesson, or both? It’s unclear. For its part, ALM’s statement describes the hackers as militant Puritans:

This … is an illegal action against the individual members of AshleyMadison.com, as well as any freethinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities. The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.

Like most people who frown on infidelity, we at Via Meadia can’t help but be at least somewhat amused by this event—just as, no doubt, any North Korean partisans out there were amused by the Sony hack and left-wing anti-government extremists cheered Julian Assange’s exposure of State Department cables.

But the fact that any particular act of web vigilantism comports with one’s particular social or political ideology obscures the broader issue: The online systems that house more and more of our most personal information are not secure. It’s tempting to decry some privacy breaches and let others slide, much the same way as its easy to tolerate speech you agree with but hard to tolerate speech that attacks your most cherished beliefs. But however we may feel about the victims of a particular hack, everyone’s online privacy needs to be protected, and the Ashley Madison hack is another reminder that we still have a long way to go on that front.

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  • Tom

    I find it rather difficult to take the statement by the people who own Ashley Madison seriously. This is not a matter of “freethinking people”–these are oathbreakers. It’s a pity that both hackers and victims can’t lose.

  • gabrielsyme

    Sin loves darkness, where its ugliness can remain secret. Ashley Madison fully deserves to be hacked, and its customers deserve to be publicly shamed. In this case, hacking is more like breaking the speed limit getting to the hospital than a truly wrong act.

  • f1b0nacc1

    A world without secrets will not be a fun place….I have no dog in this fight (if I were going to cheat, it wouldn’t be on A-M, they reek of tackiness), but I am not foolish enough to look down upon everyone who did. My life isn’t so free of sin that I have any right to sneer…are the rest of you so sure of your rectitude?

    • fastrackn1

      No one is perfect, but open acceptance of certain activities and behaviors like A/M, queer marriage, covering oneself with tattoos and body piercings from one end to the other, etc. is not good for society in the long run.
      Anyway, it doesn’t matter at this point. The slippery slope has started long ago and it won’t stop anytime soon.

      It would be interesting to see where it all ends someday in the distant future….

      • f1b0nacc1

        I am reminded of the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”
        A world without privacy is a very unpleasant place, whether good for society or not…

    • rheddles

      I’m certain of my rectitude and that I have less than you.

      • f1b0nacc1

        You never know…once I was young and VERY foolish….grin…

    • Tom

      Not so much my own rectitude, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use Ashley Madison if I decided to cheat on my wife (if I was married); also, although I’d hate it, it probably would be better in the long run to be exposed.

      • f1b0nacc1

        I am not defending the A/M users, either in their choice to cheat or in their choice of a venue to cheat in. I am merely pointing out that before we all get too comfortable with our righteous condemnation of their mistake, we might want to remember that their for the grace of God go we….

        • Andrew Allison

          Their mistake was in thinking that there’s such a thing as privacy on the Internet. As TAI points out, the Internet is “an incredibly powerful weapon against which national governments, corporations and, yes, you, have no practical defense.”

          • f1b0nacc1

            Well said…

        • fastrackn1

          “mistake”

          Something as well thought out and planned as a behavior like cheating, especially when joining a website to do so, (as compared to perhaps a chance encounter in a drunken state for example), is hardly a ‘mistake’.

          Bad behavior gets what it deserves.
          Societies should condemn these type of behaviors, as they have in the past…not hide behind accepting the behavior and then begging God for forgiveness…God is not fooled….

          If we don’t continue to condemn ourselves and others for bad behaviors, then they will continue to be on the rise, with no end in sight.

          • f1b0nacc1

            How fortunate you must be to have never made a mistake (and yes, often mistakes can be undertaken with a great deal of calculation…) which you later regretted.
            I am a deeply flawed human being, and I try (often without success) to learn from my mistakes and let that learning inform my understanding of others. I am not sure that makes me a better person (I honestly don’t know), but your absolute certainty is a bit off-putting for me.
            Lets leave this here…you get the last word.

          • fastrackn1

            I have never met anyone who is “deeply flawed”…perhaps you are not as deeply flawed as you think you are.
            Introspection is often deeply flawed….

  • Boritz

    “freethinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities. ”

    Question for the Democratic debate: Will Hillary pledge to rise to this standard?

  • Anthony

    “A website for married adults looking to have affairs.” What more needs to be added. Human behavior (what’s done in the dark comes out in the light) meets technological advance – risk&reward or deception&revelation. Very few things are what they appear (Jared and Subway advertising).

  • Andrew Allison

    Feminist hackers? Doubtful, since A/M is an equal opportunity service, and the female consenting adults participating have also been outed. Let’s not confuse the moral issue regarding the service which A/M provides (extra-marital hook-ups), with the fact that ANYTHING which is posted to the Internet should be considered to un-deletable and potentially made public..

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