This summer, we have been rocked by the Ashley Madison data breach. For those of you who have been too busy sunning yourself on holiday to keep up with the news, or who are currently off gallivanting around the world with intermittent Wi-Fi connections, (I hate you all) I’ll briefly fill you in. Ashley Madison is a website run by a company, Avid Life Media, with the purpose of helping users engage in extra-marital affairs. The site boasts over 125 million views each month. On July 15th 2015, a group of hackers known as The Impact Team infiltrated the website, and threatened to release user information to the general public, if it was not shut down. Since then, over 60 gigabytes of information, including names and e-mail addresses, have been released and two suicides have been linked to the breach.
As a result of this, millions of users’ personal and private information have been thrown into the public eye. An affair in its purest form is inherently a breach of privacy – a traditional, exclusive marriage or relationship is infiltrated, and the act is then shrouded in secrecy. If, and when, it is found out, then the ramifications can be shattering – but they are also private. The effects aren’t usually felt beyond a sphere of colleagues, friends and family, unless the participants are politicians or celebrities, a label that ensures almost no private life. I know what shade and brand of lipstick Kylie Jenner uses, for God’s sake.
Yet, are we really surprised that this has happened, when relationships have become less and less about privacy, for both the participants, and the couple as a whole? It’s not enough anymore just to talk to a partner on the phone, or send them texts – we have to be friends with them on Facebook (usually while documenting our every move as a couple), follow each other on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, listen to each other’s Spotify accounts and have that smiley face by each other’s name on Snapchat (or else disaster). In the Digital Age, knowing where your partner is at all times, what they’re doing, who they’re with and even what they’re listening to, is simply part of a relationship.
Although technology can remove privacy in relationships, it has also adapted to allow it. We can see this in sites like Ashley Madison, which offered utmost discretion and secrecy, and allowed users to escape the double-bonds of marriage in the Digital Age, both emotionally and physically. These two sides of technology, publicity and privacy, are currently battling it out in an evolutionary arms race. And it was a win for transparent, public, broadcasting technology with the Ashley Madison breach. It was the privacy that the Impact Team went after, even taunting the company after the infiltration: ‘Too bad for ALM, your promised secrecy, but didn’t deliver…’
If you Google Ashley Madison, the first suggestion is the list, and who is on the list. There are currently thousands of articles floating about, advising people on whether they should read the list or not. Many commentators are deliberating if they should condemn the hackers or not for releasing the data, as it was obviously such ‘a worthy cause’. Yes, having an affair is an awful thing to do, capitalising on it, and making a commercial venture out of it is even worse, and I’m not condoning it in any way – but do those participants deserve to have everyone know about it? Do their families deserve that? From my perspective, it is the hackers that have taken away secrecy, and ruined lives, not the website. And this is just one consequence deriving from the problem of technology becoming too involved and normalised in our so-called relationships.