Ashley Madison & Using Stolen Data

by Arthur L Caplan, PhD and Charles Seife, MS

This past August, the public was treated to gigabytes of data stolen from the Ashley Madison website, including detailed records on millions of people who had registered for their service. Their service, of course, is a dating site meant to facilitate extra-marital affairs. The message isn’t subtle, as anyone who’s got their upbeat jingle — “I’m looking for someone other than my wife!” — stuck in his head can attest. The Toronto-based Ashley Madison isn’t the only hookup site that’s been attacked by hackers. A few months earlier, Adult FriendFinder suffered a massive data breach, with hackers publishing details of 4 million subscribers on the Web. Nobody knows who’s the next target, but it’s a good guess that porn sites may be high up on the list. With pornography accounting for nearly ten percent of all internet traffic that is a lot of names.

The leaked information is a snapshot of people’s inner lives – and a treasure trove for those who know how to use data to tell stories. Not just journalists, but also social scientists, people doing public health and those doing political research, can put this data to good use. But should they?

The downside of using the data is a steep one. It’s important to keep in mind that these data have caused serious harm to people already. There have been at least three suicides attributed to the Ashley Madison hack http://money.cnn.com/2015/09/08/technology/ashley-madison-suicide/. Many marriages and careers are surely wobbling as a result of the nonconsensual outing of specific identities of sex site users.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.