Since when does the Internet care so much about monogamy?
On Friday, Gawker published a post alleging that a Condé Nast executive tried to arrange an evening with a gay escort. Now, a hacker or group of hackers calling themselves The Impact Team have come forward, cybercrime journalist Brian Krebs reported Sunday, threatening to release the private information of users on AshleyMadison.com, a dating website for current and prospective adulterers owned by Avid Life Media (ALM).
In a time of rapidly shifting sexual mores, cheating has never been punished more swiftly and severely.
The Impact Team is demanding in a statement that ALM “immediately” and “permanently” shut down AshleyMadison.com—along with EstablishedMen.com, a dating website that offers to “[connect] ambitious and attractive girls with successful and generous benefactors”—or else they will “release all customer records, profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies, nude pictures, conversations and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses.”
According to Motherboard, suspicious spouses can already check if their husbands and wives are registered on Ashley Madison by inputting their email addresses into the “forgot password form,” but The Impact Team allegedly has access to even more sensitive user information.
ALM believes that an insider may be behind the attack, which could affect up to 37 million users. CEO Noel Biderman claims to be “on the doorstep of [confirming] who we believe is the culprit.” But whoever is behind it, moralistic swaths of social media are already cheering them on.
Their responses recall recently resigned Gawker Editor-in-Chief Max Read’s defense of the now-retracted Condé Nast article, in which he defended publishing a story with no genuine public interest on the basis of protecting marital fidelity.
It’s a justification that journalist Glenn Greenwald called “sanctimonious posturing as the morality police.” Other journalists and editors shared Greenwald’s sentiments, referring to the article as “[a]n appalling act of gay shaming” and “a click you’ll regret.”
But while Gawker’s article sparked near universal outrage, the reactions to the Ashley Madison hacking so far have been more of a mixture of bemusement, catharsis, and, yes, some criticism of The Impact Team. Out a male CFO who allegedly solicited sex outside of marriage from a male escort and our fingers immediately wag in Gawker’s direction. But threaten to publish the nude photos of millions of people who had—or tried to have—extramarital affairs and our feelings seem to be much more diverse.
Let’s be clear: From an ethical and legal perspective, if you opposed the Gawker article, you should also oppose the Ashley Madison hack, irrespective of your feelings on adultery.
And, if you live in the U.S., chances are your feelings on extramarital affairs are not particularly good. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ views on moral issues have shifted substantially over the last 15 years except when it comes to marital infidelity. From 2001 to 2015, the moral acceptance of polygamy has doubled from seven to 16 percent of Americans, support for divorce has leapt to 71 percent, and support for childbirth outside of wedlock crossed the 50 percent mark.
Meanwhile, the moral acceptability of “married men and women having an affair” has only moved a tick, from 7 to 8 percent.
Adultery, it seems, is one of America’s most stubborn moral taboos. Of the poll items Gallup tracks—which include such controversial issues as medical testing on animals, stem cell research, cloning, and abortion—it is the least accepted behavior by far.
It’s also fairly common, as Ashley Madison’s 37 million users could attest. Reliable estimates are hard to come by and they vary substantially but somewhere between 22 and 28 percent of men and 15 to 18 percent of women have admitted to having sex with someone other than a spouse across various surveys in the last 15 years—two to three times the percent of Americans who say they morally condone the behavior.
But you don’t have to approve of adulterers to oppose their Scarlet Letter-style en masse public shaming, just as you don’t have to particularly like The Hunger Games to stand up for Jennifer Lawrence’s right to privacy. You can hate Ashley Madison, shame them for their fat-shaming ads, and resent their infidelity-promoting CEO, without condoning criminal activity.
Of course, by some accounts, if you oppose the Ashley Madison hack, you must be a cheater yourself.
But given the tone of the The Impact Team’s statement, the release of nude adulterer photos—if it takes place as threatened—could be seen as a form of “revenge porn,” or the distribution of sexual photos without consent, an activity that is restricted by law in 24 states. ALM is headquartered in New York, which passed revenge porn legislation last year.
As The Washington Post reports, a distributor of revenge porn images is “often a spurned lover, but may also be a hacker.” The most typical revenge porn scenario involves an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend posting nude images of a woman online, but just because the potential release of Ashley Madison nudes might not align with conventional notions of “revenge porn” does not necessarily disqualify it from being subject to some of the same legislation.
The Impact Team certainly seems motivated, in part, by sexual spurning.
“Too bad for these men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” they said in their statement.
“[A] significant percentage of the population is about to have a very bad day, including many rich and powerful people,” they continued.
But curiously—and hypocritically—The Impact Team also claimed that ALM was being targeted because it did not keep user information secret enough. In their statement, The Impact Team highlighted Ashley Madison’s Full Delete feature, which allows users to erase their history and personal information from the site for a small fee, calling it “a complete lie.”
“Users almost always pay with credit card; their purchase details are not removed as promised, and include real name and address, which is of course the most important information the users want removed,” they wrote.
“Too bad for ALM, you promised secrecy but didn’t deliver,” the hackers wrote.
Ashley Madison announced today that they would be offering the feature for free “in light of today’s news.”
It seems odd, however, that The Impact Team would punish ALM for not maintaining user privacy by then threatening to violate it on a massive scale. But whatever The Impact Team’s true motivation and however unethical we believe the sexual misconduct of Ashley Madison users to be, a nude photo hack is still a nude photo hack and not a laughing matter.
Whether you’re a Hollywood starlet or a lying cheater, your nude photos are your nude photos and they ought to stay that way.