Following the hack of extra-marital affairs website Ashley Madison in July, the hackers have now uploaded to the web highly compromising personal information on about 37 million people.
The data trove is extensive, ranging from email addresses to physical descriptions, from financial data to intimate sexual preferences.
It’s easy to gloat. Millions of unfaithful partners are getting their comeuppance — as is a company profiting off cheating, whose tagline is, “Life is short. Have an affair.” Parent company Avid Life Media’s plans for an IPO went up in smoke after the news of the hack broke back in July. It’s hard to see how the company can come back from this. (After all, who would ever trust it with any of their personal data again?)
But this hack should worry everyone, regardless of your feelings about infidelity.
The data is a goldmine for cybercriminals
Email dumps and financial details are frequently stolen and sold in bulk online because of the potential for fraud and identity theft. Throw into the mix detailed portraits of people’s sexualities and you have a recipe for serious blackmail.
In some ways, the leak is similar to the hack of the OPM — the White House Office of Personnel Management. Believed to have been carried out by Chinese state-sponsored hackers, the OPM breach resulted in the theft of 21 million people’s personal details. This included SF-86 forms used to apply for security clearance, which go into detail about any potentially compromising aspects of their life, ranging from psychological health to drug use and gambling.
Like the Ashley Madison hack, the OPM breach has been described as a “goldmine of blackmail for intruders.” But unlike the OPM hack, anyone now has access to the compromising information leaked from Ashley Madison, not just the hackers themselves.
This is especially concerning when you consider the nature of some of the members of Ashley Madison. We can’t take the existence of an email address in the dump proof that its owner was an Ashley Madison user, because the dating site doesn’t verify email addresses. But one initial analysis of the hack found more than 15,000 US military and government email addresses in the dump.
As such, this doesn’t just affect the members themselves — it also affects anyone who works with them, or relies on them.
It puts members in real danger
Even ignoring the blackmail, there’s another, more concerning aspect to this all: The danger it puts some members in.
I’m not referring to risk of encouraging internet vigilantism, although that is another aspect to it — writing for The Awl, John Herrman reports that “anonymous internet posters have already discovered the email address of at least one public figure,” and that “in subsequent posts, they identify this person’s partner. This person has been confronted on Twitter; I would not be surprised if the partner is currently getting alarming emails from strangers. This happened almost instantly after the leak.”
Instead: Avid Life is based in Toronto, but, as its site boasts, it has “over 40 million members worldwide.” Many of these members live in countries where adultery or homosexuality are illegal, and often with very serious punishments. One Reddit user says that he lives in Saudi Arabia, but used Ashley Madison while studying in the US to “keep my [gay] hookups extremely discreet,” and that he “only used AM to hook up with single guys.” He says he has since been forced to flee the country.
The user provided no proof, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that there are numerous cases like his out there — and that moralistic authoritarian regimes might download the database to see if their citizens are on it.
In Short: Stop laughing, this matters
This dump can affect anyone, regardless of whether or not you’re signed up. If a colleague or someone you rely on secretly used it — congratulations, they’ve been compromised. That puts you at risk too.
And even if you do believe potential adulterers deserve to be publicly shamed, that is not all that’s going to happen. It puts people at risk of very serious harm across the globe, and that’s nothing to celebrate.