The latest rumpus to whip through the media, spawning dozens of think-pieces (like this one), is the hacking of Ashley Madison, a sort of alternative dating site whose slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Hackers broke into the Canadian website two weeks ago and threatened to expose its 37 million users’ personal information.
One of the think-pieces I bothered to read on this topic was this one by Dan Savage. I’m a big fan of Savage’s. I listen to his podcast, the Savage Lovecast, weekly (as a Magnum subscriber, no less), this topic is squarely within his beat, and I often agree with his take on national issues. In this particular case, though, I found a sticking point in Savage’s argument that I think deserves consideration.
In his column (and also in last week’s Lovecast), Savage compared the Ashley Madison hack to the recent hullabaloo over Gawker’s alleged outing of a top Condé Nast executive (who I will not name). The association makes sense on the surface: both cases involve titillating sex scandals and the violation of people’s privacy.* Savage astutely pointed out that The Internet was united in its disdain for Gawker’s editorial decision, but, hypocritically, unsympathetic and hostile to the victims of the Ashley Madison hack. “People are furious this time with the cheaters, not the outers,” he wrote.
When he tweeted:
…he got a strong pushback from his followers, ranging from gleeflul schadenfreude to pure bile. The tweeters justified their hostility by moralizing about the (potential) misdeeds of Ashley Madison’s clients: these users whose personal information is on the line deserved rebuke, and not sympathy, because cheaters aren’t worthy of the latter.
My take on the Ashley Madison hack was similar to Savage’s: no one deserves to have his or her life blown up publicly for choices made in private (within reason). I think the word “shaming” is overused, but it describes well what the same Internet that vehemently defended Gawker’s victim did to some 37 million other people in this case. Savage writes, “It’s easy to see cheating as a morality play with clearly identifiable victims and victimizers.” I agree. But these two situations also differ in some important ways.
Gawker is a prominent news and gossip site that foisted itself upon the life of an unassuming, private person. To me—and, it seems, to the rest of the people paying attention to this fracas—the Condé Nast executive’s actions did not merit public humiliation at the hands of Gawker, which, as an ostensible news organization, should have had the integrity not to publish this story in the first place. Savage’s column acknowledges this, saying, “I know that Gawker is a news site that does journalism…and that as journalists they’re held to a higher standard…than a bunch of anonymous hackers.” But, to Savage, the expectation of journalistic ethics notwithstanding, in both situations, “the violation is exactly the same” because the consequences—broken marriages, traumatized children, emotional distress—are the same. I agree that the consequences are the same, but I think the violations are not.
A lot of the tweets disparaging the Ashley Madison users, including one Savage cited in his column, referenced consent. A cheater violates a partner’s trust in part by having an affair without the partner’s permission, they said. Ironically, there was consent in the Ashley Madison case—and, critically, not in the Gawker case—when millions of users created accounts, surrendering private data like names, credit card information, and fantasies, voluntarily. That this was done under the assumption of privacy does not change the fact that most users** provided this information uncoerced and about themselves.
To me, the subject of the since-deleted Gawker post was an additional step removed from the scandal that concerned him. He, too, took his alleged actions under the assumption of privacy, but this was because his dealings were conducted in private, between him and one other person. By contrast, the Ashley Madison users engaged with what is, no matter how strong the security, a sort of public permanent record. Any extramarital dalliance puts someone at risk of being found out, and this was an equal risk allegedly taken by both the Condé Nast executive and the Ashley Madison users. But the Ashley Madison users went a step further by voluntarily inscribing their intentions in the indelible annals of the Internet. Once something is on the Internet, it can be found, event if it shouldn’t. The Condé Nast executive, on the other hand, was the hapless victim of a self-serving blackmailer and the irresponsible news site that picked up his story.
I think this distinction stands even if the Condé Nast executive’s alleged affair was arranged through email or some kind of online chat service. This story didn’t get to Gawker through a hack; the two could have arranged the entire thing in person. That wouldn’t change the fact that it was the escort who violated his prospective client’s privacy by going to the press, and then Gawker who really violated the client’s privacy by publishing that story. A random, anonymous hack of a website does not have the same personal sting—another reason why the violation isn’t the same.
Furthermore, even if, in theory, these violations seem similar, they played out in fundamentally different ways. The Gawker story was the result of two private people making an arrangement and one of those people violating the other’s privacy by sharing the intimate details of their arrangement with the press. In the Ashley Madison case, it wasn’t Ashley Madison that threatened to release its users’ data; it was an anonymous third-party group barging in that, by the way, never went through with its threat***. The detailed, individual humiliation of a private person and the revelation of his specific plans to commit adultery do not compare to the unfulfilled threat of people (even millions of them) having their credit card numbers and self-reported sexual fantasies revealed. We have evidence of what Gawker published in the form of the blackmailing escort’s allegations, but a person simply being revealed to have an Ashley Madison account proves almost nothing.
I should reiterate that I am not on the side of the Ashley Madison hackers in this case. To me, their actions are as scuzzy as those of the Condé Nast bigwig’s alleged escort (who is also, reportedly, a wingnutty conspiracy theorist)—and, by extension, Gawker. I don’t think the Ashley Madison users “had it coming” or deserve to have their private data made public any more than the Condé Nast exec did. I also find other people’s fidelity to be none of my business. But I don’t think condemning the Ashley Madison hackers’ actions while also seeing Gawker’s violation as taking it a step further are mutually exclusive, and I don’t agree with Dan Savage’s assessment that the violations were the same.
These breaches also brought up an interesting conversation about our culture’s relationship with monogamy, which I will explore in the (currently-in-progress) second part of this essay at some point in the indeterminate future.
*Yes, the Gawker thing also brings up important ethical questions in journalism, but I’m setting that part aside to focus on privacy issues.
**A disturbing twist in the Ashley Madison story is that it’s apparently a virtual sieve in terms of security, making it easy for anyone to create a false account with someone else’s email address. So an additional threat is that, should its records be revealed, there may also be innocent casualties who weren’t even aware of Ashley Madison’s existence.
***Update (8/19/15): It appears that they have now made good on their threat. I am not linking to any stories about this because I think it’s a bunch of self-righteous garbage.
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