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A tale of vigilante justice: Adulterers, hackers, and the Ashley Madison affair

seventh commandment by Pascal Flickr.

Hackers calling themselves “The Impact Team” recently stole the customer data of Ashley Madison, an online dating service for people who are married or in committed relationships. Ashley Madison employs a slogan that says it all: “Life is short. Have an affair.”

During July and August, customer data was released online by the hackers: the upshot is that it’s now possible to identify many individuals who held Ashley Madison accounts. This includes such intimate details as their sexual fetishes and proclivities.

The entire exploit seems to have been a vigilante mission, since the hackers initially blackmailed Ashley Madison, threatening to release the customer data unless the site was shut down.

It was inevitable that an exercise such as this would ruin reputations, lives, and careers, that it would destroy families, and drive some individuals to despair – perhaps even suicide. Already, there have been media reports linking one suicide to exposure from the Ashley Madison data breach. Whether or not those reports are accurate, the hackers must have known the risks they were taking with human lives. They were willing to go ahead anyway, perhaps driven by the ugly motives of moralism and egotism.

Whatever you think about adulterous liaisons – even if you regard them as outrageous, destructive, morally wicked breaches of trust – this sort of vigilante justice is unacceptable. When vigilantes set out to punish sinners or wrongdoers, the results can be perverse, disproportionate, sometimes extreme and often irreversible. Even the supposed victims of wrongdoers may end up worse off.

It is difficult enough to judge the wisdom of revealing an adulterous affair to an affected individual when the facts are fairly clear and the consequences are possibly manageable. Indiscriminately letting loose this kind of data, affecting millions of personal situations, is atrociously arrogant and callous.

I’m sure that customers signed up to Ashley Madison for a wide range of reasons. Some may have done little or nothing wrong, even by conventional standards of sexual morality, but will now be held up for public shaming. Some may have been sufficiently interested in a phenomenon such as Ashley Madison to want to research it from the inside. Many may simply have been curious.

Others may have toyed with the idea of an affair, but not in a serious way – they may have been driven by their curiosity and other emotions to browse the site, but gone no further. Some may have been in open relationships of one kind or another: but even so, they could be embarrassed, shamed and otherwise harmed by revelations about their memberships.

Even those seriously hoping for illicit affairs could fall into many categories, including people whose marriages were already in ruins for other reasons (although it might not have been publicly known). Some may, indeed, have made bad misjudgments, but some of those people were surely suffering from desperation, mental illness, or other severe and mitigating problems.

For all these reasons, I am not applauding this data breach, and I will not be crowing even about the discomfort to individuals who appear unlikable.

Then again, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel some schadenfreude about a very small number of cases. Two come to mind that have received publicity.

American TV personality and family-values activist Josh Duggar is one of them. Duggar had two paid accounts, and he has since publicly confessed to adultery. He had already been in trouble over sexual molestation allegations dating back to when he was a teenager, and it may be that this latest turn of events won’t make things much worse for him than they were.

But while it may be salutary that the public knows about a moral crusader’s hypocrisy, this was not the way for it to happen – especially not when so many other people are affected, people who are not public figures, anti-gay blowhards, or obvious hypocrites.

I also feel some schadenfreude about Gawker journalist Sam Biddle, who is perhaps best known for initiating the viral Twitter shaming of Justine Sacco that left her life in ruins. The biter bit, and all that. For what it’s worth, though, I actually believe his explanation that he had signed up briefly for research purposes. That’s not especially unlikely for someone who writes for Gawker or, indeed, for any journalist who is interested in cyberculture (sorry to disappoint, though: I don’t happen to have an Ashley Madison account).

I doubt that Biddle will suffer much harm, unlike many others. Gawker, meanwhile - being the sort of publication that it is – has had no compunction about going after Duggar. There are some things you can always count on.

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