Tip of the white hat, wag of the cheating finger

Ashley Madison dot com is one of those corners of the internet you never knew existed, but when you find out about it, it kind of makes a sick sort of sense. Madison, whose tag-line is “Life is short. Have an affair.” has a pretty simple mission statement, help more than 37 million married people have secret and fulfilling sexual dalliances. It was perhaps only a matter of time till they were the targets of hackers. A group calling themselves “The Impact Team” posted a large quantity of client information and promised to release all the private details, photos, credit card numbers, et cetera for every cheating cheater should Madison refuse to shut down.

Image Source: NPR

Image Source: NPR

This is the kind of story that feels viscerally satisfying even though deep down all parties are a little bit icky. Even those of us without a particularly strong moral compass like the idea of people getting what’s coming to them. It’s the same satisfaction we get when Donald Trump makes an ass of himself on television. It’s a natural impulse to like to see unlikable people, or people who have done something wrong, get their comeuppance.

Thing is, it’s a little hard to defend this hack. Sure there’s some chivalrous impulses in revealing philanderers and also highlighting the ways Madison might be cheating the cheaters with phony profile deletion fees. But posting personal information is just wrong. If the credit card transactions contain info that can be used to get card numbers, then you’ve hurt the victims as well as the cheating spouses. Posting naked pictures of the users of this site is just another form of revenge porn, and isn’t born out of anything but a prurient impulse.

A white hat hacker would have taken down the site, or posted a bunch of phony profiles, or some other prank to make the users look foolish. They wouldn’t hold the site hostage. No for profit website is going to shut itself down because of a threat, even if it should.

I don’t particularly see  this hack as a sign of something more sinister, of a moral policing of the internet. Such an effort would be as ineffective as it would be fool-hardy. For every site you take down or attack, two more spring up in its place, and a dozen more in the dark net and the deep web.

This is not to say that I want to let philanderers off the hook. I think that cheating on someone, especially your spouse, but even your girlfriend or fiancée is terrible. Here’s why, besides the obvious. It’s a sign there is something seriously wrong in your relationship and you’re too much of a coward to fix it. “But I still love her, I just need something more.” Bull. Deal with your problems like an adult, break up, seek counseling, whatever you need to do. Do that first, then go seek other relationships.

But hacks like this one aren’t going to solve the problem. Frankly, if we’ve got 37 million people wanting to cheat on their spouses (and those are just the people who have heard of this website) then we may have some problems to deal with as a society as well. Over emphasis of the sexual part of our relationships. Lack of understanding of how our sex drives wax and wane over the course of long relationships. Over emphasis on everything being novel and new.

So maybe take a moment to be satisfied that a bunch of cheating people have at least been made nervous, then hope these hackers move on to something a little more productive.

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