Tuesday night, hackers leaked a database of private information scraped from tens of millions of Ashley Madison profiles, including user email addresses, phone numbers, payment details, and checked-off sexual desires. For those of us left unexposed, the hacking has given us more questions than answers. Questions like: Is my husband on here? What about my ex-boyfriend? And my dad? Should I enter all of their email addresses into this frustratingly convenient website that tells you if it’s associated with an Ashley Madison account, just in case? Those questions, and more, answered:
Why did the hackers do this?
Ashley Madison believes that Impact Team, the anonymous hacking collective that’s claimed responsibility for the leak, is an ideologically driven group that wants to impose its “personal notion of virtue on all of society.” Impact Team says it targeted Ashley Madison because the site charges users a fee to delete their full message history and retains data on customers after they leave. Still, it’s not all about privacy; there seems to be a chivalrous bent to Impact Team’s crusade. Ashley Madison’s parent company, Avid Life Media, also owns taboo dating sites Established Men (“Connecting young, beautiful women with interesting men”) and Cougar Life (“Meet Divorcees, Single Moms, and Sexy Singles looking for a young Stud!”). The hackers included Established Men users in the Ashley Madison leak, but they left the cougars alone. On Twitter, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopolous noted that this is the rare sex-related hack to predominantly target men. This is a smart move: After last year’s leak of female celebrity nude photos sparked a feminist backlash, a hacker who hopes to discredit and embarrass his target may find that shaming women causes his plan to backfire. So while women constitute a healthy minority of Ashley Madison users, Impact Team has made an effort to recuse them from the public shaming ritual. In fact, in a statement posted with the leak, the hackers suggested that women who turn up in the database are probably just one of the site’s many “fake female profiles.” It didn’t let the men off so easily: “Chances are your husband signed up for the world’s biggest affair site, but never had one. He just tried to. If that distinction matters.”
Does that distinction matter?
What constitutes cheating varies from couple to couple, but I think most Americans would agree that entering an email address into a website and making genital contact with another human being are different things.
How do Ashley Madison users feel about the leak?
I created a profile this morning, uploaded a photo, used Ashley Madison’s photo-editing software to place a fun Eyes Wide Shut mask graphic over my face, and tooled around the site looking for the cheaters to share their feelings. I admitted to being a journalist on assignment in my profile, and nobody agreed to talk to me, but one of them did send me a photograph of his penis. I can confidently report that many users’ activities have not been affected by the leak.
How should I feel about the leak?
Morally conflicted. If these hacks tell us anything, it’s that a lot of people would hate for strangers to rifle through their private emails, yet can’t help but rifle when someone else’s digital artifacts are exposed. (Especially if that someone is George W. Bush and the artifacts are his amateur dog portraits.) But remember that hackers have idiosyncratic motivations that don’t necessarily track with broader cultural movements and aren’t easily conveyed by the targets they choose to attack. Consider our varied responses to the Sony hack: The reports of Hollywood racism and greed uncovered in the Sony emails felt important; the airing of Channing Tatum’s charming all-caps brag over the success of 22 Jump Street seemed harmless enough; and the publication of Amy Pascal’s intimate Amazon orders was denounced as a sexist violation. A hack does not have its own moral compass. That’s our job.
So is Ben Affleck in the database?
Amoral and/or bored corners of the Internet have been searching the data dump in pursuit of any sensational name—Hollywood actor, congressman, religious figure, PTA leader—but so far, no fancy people have been widely identified. The many prominent email accounts—like firstname.lastname@example.org—that have surfaced since the leak were likely submitted by other users hoping to conceal their own identities, as Ashley Madison doesn’t require email verification. Perhaps famous people are unlikely to use a janky website populated largely by less-famous dudes to find sex partners. That’s what Twitter DMs are for.
Should I search for my dad’s email?
No. All possible outcomes of that decision are gross and sad.
Should I search for my spouse’s email?
Let’s not. If you suspect your spouse has been untrue, you’d probably find more reliable evidence by scrolling through their texts than searching this database. Not all Ashley Madison users have cheated on their spouses, and not all cheaters are on Ashley Madison.
Should I search for my ex’s email?
No! BuzzFeed’s Ellen Cushing searched for her ex-boyfriend’s email, got a match, and then got sucked into an extended text conversation about their relationship. They broke up three years ago!
Just tell me who is on this website.
Broadly speaking: Curious people, bored people, robot scammers who are not actually people, and cheaters. But, while infidelity is pretty common in the American marriage—one Indiana University study found that around 20 percent of married Americans admitted to cheating on their spouses—Ashley Madison is hardly a representative sample of America’s unfaithful. Men and women cheat at similar rates, but Ashley Madison is a sausage fest. Also, the service explicitly targets people who have fairly traditional views about marriage. When I interviewed Ashley Madison owner Noel Biderman in 2009, he was eager to expand into new markets, and he reasoned that while chauvinists in Brazil could be easily encouraged to sign on, French libertines were unlikely to bite. The site stands to profit off of a host of conservative social trends: Closeted gay men who are afraid to come out, religious invectives against divorce, and couples marrying young before sexually experimenting with other partners.
I searched for your email and found a match.
I did it for this story!
Are we all going to stop telling the Internet our terrible secrets now?
The Awl’s John Hermann thinks we might. The hack “feels like a momentous event … millions of lives may be about to change profoundly,” he writes. Not just the cheaters’, but our own: The hack “has the potential to alter anyone’s relationship with the devices and apps and services they use every day.” The fallout “could haunt every email, private message, text and transaction across an internet where privacy has been taken for granted.” I’m betting it won’t, though. No amount of shame piled onto strangers will make us stop complaining about our co-workers on Gchat, or stop texting photos of our naked bodies to our partners, or stop getting sucked into a taboo online world. These hacks may make us more and more aware of the ways our technology can betray us, but we’re human. We’re perfectly capable of betraying ourselves.