Has anyone else appreciated the cruel irony of the now-notorious image plastered around town in those Ashley Madison ads? The titian-haired beauty with that single scarlet-manicured finger held up to those pouty red lips, as if saying, Shhhhh? Your secret is safe with us? For many years, those ads simply (simply!) served as a provocative reminder that an entire industry of adultery was Out There Somewhere: A multimillion dollar business ($115m gross revenue in 2014) built by a company whose entire business plan consisted of introducing wayward spouses to one another.
“Life is short,” proclaims the slogan on Ashley Madison’s titillating billboards. “Have an Affair.” A perfect promotion for the Internet age. So easy! So anonymous! So…safe.
But as it turned out, not so safe. Last week, for still-unknown reasons, the site was infiltrated by a hacker group calling itself The Impact Team. Over the course of the past week, reams of once-private user information surfaced online in a breathtaking data dump that exposed 37 million client email addresses along with 33 million accounts containing detailed information like legal names and addresses, as well as every credit card transaction processed by the site in the last seven years.
It didn’t take long for hastily constructed search engines to make the names, email addresses, and on-site spending habits of Ashley Madison aficionados easily accessible by anyone with access to a computer and a 6th-grader’s familiarity with Google.
In the past 10 days, Ashley Madison’s parent company, Avid Life Media, and its publicity-crazy owner, Noel Biderman have been hit with at least five class action lawsuits demanding close to half a billion dollars for negligence and fraud. At least two dozen other lawsuits are currently underway. In Canada, two Ashley Madison clients reportedly committed suicide after their identities were made public. And in the United States, public figures like Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and supposed Christian “family men” including Josh Duggar have been caught up in the mess. (Biden, whose credit card information was used to secure an account, maintains that he did not set up the account himself, and suspects it was established as an act of political subterfuge. Dugger admits the account was his.)
Given all this blowback, it seems fair to assume that the only assignation the sexy Ashley Madison model will be pursuing in the near future is a hookup with a pricey attorney.
This turn of events would seem almost poetically ironic, if it didn’t carry such troubling implications.
So, over a week after the news of the hack broke both the Internet and old-school media, what have we learned thus far?
A) People are stupid.
Wow, are people ever stupid. Just mind-numbingly, blindingly dim. A surprisingly high number of Ashley Madison accounts were linked to and accessed through corporate and federal email addresses, including 15,000 email addresses from government and military servers. All of which are attached to a user’s legal name, users who, by the way, know that any Internet activity on said type of account is performed with no expectation of privacy. So, yeah, wow!
B) People cheat. A lot. (Even Though They don’t admit it.)
America has always considered itself a family values kind of country, but the fact that 333 million people signed up for a site created to encourage and foster cheating underscores the fact that long-term monogamy is a losing proposition for many people.
The Ashley Madison hack is just another reminder that while we regard committed, monogamous relationships as a venerated societal ideal, they are far from universally sustainable. And frustrated, lonely (or both) people will sneak around trying to get their needs met while doing their best to maintain the image of the status quo. While we don’t care to acknowledge this truth, Ashley Madison built its (remarkably successful, if shady) reputation on it.
C) People delight in the embarrassment of others.
To nobody’s surprise, once those Google-esque search engines appeared on the web, allowing users to search for data on Ashley Madison clients, the members of the Fourth Estate were the first to pounce. Ravenously hunting for misbehaving A-list celebs, they ended up reluctantly settling for C and D- list offenders. (Hello, Josh Duggar!)
Private citizens got into the act as well, searching for partners, coworkers, friends, family members and bosses. While hunting for a wandering husband or wife may have some actual utility, most of the searches involved not spouses or relatives but colleagues and friends. Meanwhile the media is still scouring away. So far, the only “bold-faced names” turned up have been a couple husbands of Real Housewives, but the sifting will continue, I’m sure, and more culprits will be exposed. Scandal is clickbait, after all.
E) Online privacy is an illusion.
Previously, the most notable Internet hacks centered on snatching information about consumer habits, accessing government websites, and identity theft. While concerning, the fallout from these actions was primarily absorbed either by the companies involved, or the government agencies that had been attacked. This caused some degree of public concern, but not actual panic. For the general populace, the growing realization that the Internet is a rickety ship was more a tremor than a full-blown seismic event. Until now.
The Ashley Madison situation presents a more damaging form of intrusion. It’s the first major hack in which the reputations and family lives of millions of private citizens could potentially be shattered. Names that have been leaked into the Great Internet Forever may now be forever linked to adultery, wreaking havoc in marriages, social circles, and careers.
Forward-thinking people view the The Ashley Madison hack as a harbinger of dark days ahead. You may laugh at, or scorn, the alleged cheaters who’ve been outed and think, “They deserve what they get!” Maybe so, but this hack is not just an opportunity to gather in the virtual town square to gawk, snicker, and feel superior. It’s also an chance to really absorb the illusory nature of “online privacy” that so many of us take for granted. What’s next to get dumped online en masse? Your medical records? Your bank statements? Your legal documents? There’s a certain undeniable satisfaction that comes from watching people stumble on moral turf that’s foreign to you. But you’d best not get too comfortable because we’re all on shifting ground here. This case is ultimately about so much more than cheating. This is about how a group of hard-up people looking to get laid shows how we’re all, essentially, screwed.
F) The Perfect Marriage is an illusion.
In this, the Instagram era, our online lives are curated as an ongoing performance spectacle of sorts. Everything looks perfect on the Internet. Your lunch. Your vacation. Your family. Your wedding, and, of course, your marriage. But the life beyond those happy, shot-from-above smiles is often very different. As one woman wrote about her husband being named in the hack, marriage can be devastatingly complex.
“People have reacted to the information of ‘cheaters’ being released publicly with a morbidly sadistic glee. But before you post a self-righteous rant about cheaters getting what they deserve, I’d ask you to reconsider. Because it’s never as simple as it seems. Everyone on that site has a reason for being there. But you wouldn’t know that, because all you see is someone’s name on a list, and you assume that tells you everything you need to know.
“But you don’t know that my husband and I haven’t had sex in over two years.
“You don’t know that we’ve talked about our lack of sex on a weekly basis for almost five years.
“You don’t know that we’ve been in counseling, separately and together — and we still are.
“You don’t know that I have PTSD as a result of multiple sexual assaults and I dissociate every time my husband touches me.
“You don’t know how desperately we love each other.
“You don’t know how wonderful the rest of our relationship is.”
Nothing she writes makes cheating — or attempting to cheat — acceptable, or even palatable, but it frames betrayal in a way that is more complicated, and more poignant, than just the rote presentation of the husband as a knuckle-dragging Man Ape looking for a little thrill on the side while his wife blissfully irons his shirts, unaware. We can use the Ashley Madison scandal as an opportunity for increased awareness of how fragile Internet privacy really is, but we can also use it to create greater understanding that marriage is hard, and sometimes in an effort to find relief, dubious choices are made. This woman’s vulnerable post creates a picture of the hard realities of marriage that is far more illuminating than anything you’d see in a photo in a Facebook feed.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana