Ashley Madison hack: A savage wake-up call which is only the beginning

Opinion: Cheaters ousted, hearts broken, and a lesson learnt about individual privacy.

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If you're playing poker, misdirecting other players can sway the game in your favor. In Ashley Madison's case, calling the bluff of the hacker who broke into the website didn't work out as well as expected.

The resulting witch hunt may kill careers and destroy marriages, but it can serve to remind us all of an important lesson.

Ashley Madison, one of a plethora of websites dedicated to connecting people looking for casual or on-the-side experiences, suffered a severe data breach in July. The website advertizes its subscription service through the slogan "Life is too short. Have an affair," and caters for men and women looking for "discreet" encounters.

There's no judgement in using websites which offer casual sex. At least, maybe there shouldn't be. If parties are consensual and no-one's getting hurt then great -- go forth, dim the lights, close the door, be safe and enjoy. However, if a member of the site is already in a committed relationship and blissfully unaware partners --- who have given no consent -- are involved, that is when perception changes.

Hackers operating under the name "The Impact Team" shredded Ashley Madison's claims of being "the last truly secure space on the Internet," threatening last month to release the details of members -- as many as 37 million in total -- if the website stayed online.

Ashley Madison ignored the threat, and on Tuesday night, almost 10GB of stolen data was released via torrent and through dark web servers. A number of security experts have verified the legitimacy of the data leak, which appears to contain credit card transactions, usernames and email addresses. (Emails did not have to be verified at sign-up. This is an important aspect to be aware of, as some of the accounts may be falsified.)

Whether or not you applaud the cyberattacker responsible for the breach as the epitome of karma or criticize them for illegal entry into a corporate network and subsequent data theft, the point is moot. The effects of the hack are already being felt by innocent parties.

On Thursday, a woman called in to an Australian radio show due to suspicions concerning her husband's recent behavior and change in working hours. The presenters, distatefully in my eyes, revealed on air that the man in question was a member of Ashley Madison.

As you can imagine, the dismayed reaction of the lady in question was mortifying to be party of.

The reasons for signing up to these kinds of websites are many. Some sign up out of curiosity, others when bored or drunk, some through a consensual agreement in open relationships -- while others who use the site for extramarital affairs. Fusion spoke to a number of former members, of which a number denied ever using the service, others panicked as they were unaware of the data breach, and a few said they had signed up but never gone through with any meetings.

One user said that if his name was linked to the website, it would "change [people's] idea of me as a person," but there was little he could do as the scenario was "self-inflicted."

This should be a painful wake-up call to those who have been caught out, but the reasons for signing up to such a service are varied -- and it is not our place to judge what happened in each case. It brings to mind "The Fappening," in which nude celebrity photos stolen from cloud storage services were released online.

The simple lesson here: Do not upload anything on the Web you wouldn't want your grandmother to see -- such as a statement explaining willingness to cheat or what your sexual preferences are.

See also: In defense of the cheating scumbags caught up in the Ashley Madison hack

It is going to be a desperately sad scenario for many families as names are rifled through and identities are exposed. The simple, painful truth of the matter is that whatever is online is not going to be private. We're kidding ourselves if we think email is secure, if our Facebook accounts will never be compromised, and our pursuit of on-the-side affairs through the Web are risk-free.

In the same way that cheating by meeting a stranger in the bar and heading back to theirs for coffee has risk, putting your details online for any Internet service cannot be guaranteed as safe.

Data breaches and cyberattack, the theft of data and the sale of personal records useful in identity theft cases through the Dark Web are now a commonplace, accepted facet of the online world. Creating a profile and choosing your partner for a pix-and-mix affair rather than finding someone in person who is happy to be a bit-on-the-side may be more convenient, but convenience cannot be married with security -- a fact we seem to so often forget.

ZDNet's Zack Whittaker argues that cheating spouse or not, the users of Ashley Madison deserve privacy as much as anyone else. While I agree in principle, this view must be tempered with risk factors. Privacy is being eroded in the West through constant surveillance, CCTV, GPS-tracking devices and mobility -- but it is the self-inflicted surrender of privacy which is the root cause of the Ashley Madison debacle.

Every day, thousands upon thousands of images and videos are uploaded to social networks, we reveal our location through 'checking-in' features, and mobile devices used in public spaces result in footage and photos being taken of our person. Not only this, but we plug in our bank details and addresses to buy goods online, we use mobile apps to book our next ride, and conduct private conversations through messaging software rather than face-to-face.

You can't blame the Internet for this mess, but you can only hope that the data leak will help curb certain behaviors -- if not the wish to have affairs, then perhaps the lesson that we need to be more careful about what personal information is revealed online will become entrenched. Either way, the cyberattack is going to destroy lives, relationships and potentially careers once the data leak spreads further.

In the case of Ashley Madison, privacy was assured -- and an important facet of the company's marketing. However, as we gaze upon gleaming logos, sleek designs and listen to honeyed promises of privacy and secrecy, we can forget that the service is based upon the Web -- which is terrible at keeping secrets.

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