Ashley Madison has turned heads with the claim that it has added 4 million new members since a devastating hack earlier this year.
In July 2015, the extra-marital affairs dating website was targeted by hackers who threatened to leak customer information if the site didn’t close down.
After Avid Life Media — Ashley Madison’s parent company — declined to do so, the hackers followed through on their promise, leaking more than 30 million users’ details.
The material was compromising, containing everything from names and addresses to detailed sexual preferences, and the hack was accompanied by wall-to-wall press coverage.
In the subsequent fall-out, there have been reports of suicides, broken families, blackmail attempts, and more — though it will take years to count the full human cost of the hack. Avid Life Media put a planned IPO on hold, apparently indefinitely, and CEO Noel Biderman resigned, with the company facing multiple potentially ruinous lawsuits.
One might reasonably assume that the end of Ashley Madison is near. But, remarkably, the site now claims to have more than 43 million members — up from 39 million in August 2015. In others words, 4 million people have apparently signed up for the site since its members intimate and compromising details were spread around the internet for the whole world to see.
The new figure is displayed on a counter on Ashley Madison’s website, and the company appears to be declining all media questions and requests for comment about the unexpected growth.
However, some are dubious about the new figure.
Annalee Newitz, a technology reporter who previously wrote for Gizmodo and now writes for Ars Technica, has questioned the uptick in users.
Back in August, she carried out an analysis of the leaked data suggesting that Ashley Madison used large numbers of fake profiles (“fembots”) to boost its user numbers and make the site appear more attractive to men. It was a “sophisticated, deliberate, and lucrative fraud,” she wrote. “Whatever the total number of real, active female Ashley Madison users is, the company was clearly on a desperate quest to design legions of fake women to interact with the men on the site.”
Writing for Ars Technica, she questions how many of the 4 million new accounts are real people — and how many are fake bot accounts. “Maybe those 4 million new accounts really are people, eager to cheat on their spouses. Or maybe they’re the result of the Ashley Madison developers finally perfecting their system for churning out thousands of fake accounts every day. More likely, it’s somewhere in the middle. Better bots are probably luring in more paying customers.”
It’s impossible to answer this one way or another — Avid Life Media isn’t answering press queries. But it’s worth remembering that the company has apparently misled journalists before. Toronto Life journalist Lauren McKeon says she was “hoodwinked” by Avid Life Media after she discovered that interview subjects for a piece on Established Men (another Avid-owned dating site) were paid by the company, and had lied to her.
Additionally, Ashley Madison’s traffic has dropped significantly in the last few months. Its Alexa rank — a ranking of the web’s most popular websites — puts it at 3,911 as of December 29, significantly down from around 1,100 prior to the hack.
On Twitter, people are making clear what they think about the claims of 4 million new users:
Ashley Madison says it added 4 million members since the hack That’s 3,999,997 fake accounts and 3 dudes who are lying about being married
— Ben Rosenfeld (@BigBenComedy) December 29, 2015
Ashley Madison is lying.
— Daniel Hertlein (@danielhertlein) December 28, 2015
On the other hand, it’s possible that the hack created a flurry of attention, and that large numbers of people registered accounts to see what all the fuss was about. Google searches for “Ashley Madison” skyrocketed after the breach.
And the counter only seems to measure total users, not active users. Many may have signed up out of curiosity and then never actually used the service to pursue an affair.
Interestingly, an analysis from antivirus company AVG earlier in December showed that more Ashley Madison members were using its app after the hack took place. In July, just 5% of people with the app installed were using it, but this jumped to 15% in October 2015.
In its most recent statement — on August 31, 2015 — the company said that “recent media reports predicting the imminent demise of Ashley Madison are greatly exaggerated. The company continues its day-to-day operations even as it deals with the theft of its private data by criminal hackers. Despite having our business and customers attacked, we are growing. This past week alone, hundreds of thousands of new users signed up for the Ashley Madison platform — including 87,596 women.”