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The Ashley Madison Hack is Outing More Than Cheaters

Another day, another massive breach of user data. This time, the victim is AshleyMadison, the Internet hookup site for married folks looking for someone to sleep with on the side. Now, 37 million users are at risk of having their personal data leaked, with all that entails.

“So, what?” right? “That’s what those cheating jerks get for sneaking around.” It’s easy to get all high and mighty about cheaters getting their due, but not all 37 million of those people are cheaters, and things could get very hairy, very quickly, for a lot of innocent people.

See, Avid Life Media, the company behind AshleyMadison, doesn’t just run a site for married folks who want to sleep around. They include CougarLife, a dating for older women and their admirers; EstablishedMen for potential sugar daddies to meet younger women; ManCrunch for gay men; Swappernet for swingers and polyamorous couples; Big and Beautiful for overweight men and women and many other sites. Those 37 million hacked profiles, according to hackers Impact Team, “profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses” includes innocent people looking for honest relationships too (Well, you can debate about EstablishedMen, but I assume nobody’s being coerced).

Impact Team isn’t just threatening to release the AshleyMadison and EstablishedMen data. They’re threatening to release all the data. So they’re not just outing cheaters and sugar daddies: they’re outing gay men, people in poly relationships, and people with perfectly reasonable kinks that are still somewhat socially unacceptable. Though, according to Impact Team, the 37 million profiles are “mostly from the US and Canada,” there’s bound to be a significant chunk in parts of the world that aren’t so tolerant about who people go to bed with — especially in the Middle East and Russia.

It’s one thing to support outing cheaters. It’s another thing to shame the overweight, or out innocent gay and polyamorous people. Remember, this comes only days after Gawker posted and pulled a story on the Condé Nast CEO hiring a male escort. Even in the United States, there’s still no shortage of risk to having a “deviant” sexual lifestyle.

This isn’t to fully defend Avid Life Media. Impact Team’s reasoning behind the hack is the “Full Delete” feature the sites offer. They promise that all your user data will be scrubbed from the database, provided you cough up a $19 fee.

According to Impact Team, that data isn’t actually removed. Truth is, many online services don’t actually delete your data when you delete your account, they just mark your entry in their database as inactive. Part of this has to do with limitations in relational database programming, and part of it is just sheer laziness on the part of web programmers. Either way, it’s a nasty move to charge $19 for something that you don’t actually get.

But it’s a worse move to out and shame innocent people whose only crime is looking for love — or just a hookup — on a site operated by a company that also enables marital infidelity. If you’ve got problems with how they do business, a reasonable position to take, there’s better ways to deal with it than by blackmailing 37 million people with data on their sexual fantasies.

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