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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