Cheater or Not, the Ashley Madison Hack has a lesson for Everyone

Ashley Madison
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The recent hack of the Canadian site Ashley Madison by the hacker collective Impact Team has given rise to umpteen discussions about almost everything that’s analogous to the Internet these days – privacy, ethics, anonymity, leaks and whatnot.

Even terms that were not too common up until a few years back, like doxing and online shaming, are now being discussed all across the digital media.

But amidst all of this, I have one sincere query – is there a silver lining to the Ashley Madison hacks? No, I’m not sitting on a higher ground and making binary judgments like “cheaters deserve this.”

Any rational person knows that there is a huge difference between crime and adultery in a progressive society.

What I really want to know is – has the Internet audience, especially one that has put its faith in technology, really learnt its lesson?

An expectation of absolute privacy is a perilous idea, especially in the digital age. To understand this, we need to take a step back in time and look at the bigger picture; observe how with regards to the Internet, fear has evolved.

Some of us are from a generation when the Internet was new to us, and to use the cliche, yes, a lot of us feared the unknown. We told our kids not to chat with strangers online.

We didn’t know what could be out there and so we invested in firewalls and security packs. I’m not saying that was a bad thing – after all those were, and to a certain extent, still are, very valid fears.

But the protective steps we used to address these fears were created from the premise that the danger lies out there.

What about the danger that’s us? Our secret lives, our fantasies, fetishes, even our extreme ideologies – these are all parts of us that we would ideally hide from the world – and yet, when it comes to sites like Ashley Madison, we seem to have no qualms about laying bare our ‘everything’.

The fear we had of the ‘unknown stranger’ online, we need to cultivate the same kind of fear for sites we feel are safe.

Nothing is safe when it’s online. Do we not call the Internet not just a network but a bank of information? Well, what do banks do?

They don’t just store our money, but use everyone’s money to show that they have huge accumulated capital. Only because all account holders do not withdraw their money at the same time do banks survive.

The money is always in use. The difference is, we know that about banks and we’re okay with it. The same kind of transparency does not come with the Internet. But it’s an unsaid rule that everyone needs to know.

Here’s the thing – let’s not confuse the fear with paranoia. And this is not victim blaming either. I’m not condoning what the hackers did, but at least let this hack be a lesson for us.

We need to be very clever about the personal information we reveal online. There’s a reason a site like Reddit is one of the most popular ones online.

If Impact Team or any other hacker community were to leak the account holders on Reddit, it wouldn’t be news. Most accounts there are created through frivolous e-mail Ids anyway.

Ever since the Ashley Madison hacks, the elephant in the room has been the discussion around doxing. As the Gamergate incident proved, doxing is uncool and unless the necessity level is Edward Snowden-ish, it shall always remain uncool.

But as the recent hacks have revealed, suddenly doxing is seen as something that the “cheaters” deserved. Here’s why that’s a very problematic thing – doxing, irrespective of context, is just another fancy word for online bullying.

There is a clear malicious intent behind making someone’s private information public and if it is not checked immediately, the consequences could be catastrophic.

More so in cases like the Ashley Madison hack where revealing the information can ruin families, get people fired from their work and also potentially, convince people to go to extreme lengths of violence or even suicide.

Bottom line is, we all have our secrets. But we’re all heavily invested in the Internet. The mere fact that there’s a record of what anyone’s doing online at any given moment should be reason enough to understand that privacy cannot be taken for granted in the digital age.

A person has to go to extreme lengths to stay ‘off grid’, and since that is not something an average user is capable of, the next best step is caution.

So, the next time there’s a discussion about the Ashley Madison hacks, whether online or offline, and the conversation lacks any mention of the need to insulate people’s private information, you know what to do.

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