On the Ashley Madison Hack
Heather Havrilesky is very much making sense:
And while the biggest hacks to receive attention lately — the Sony hack, the Fappening’s nude-celebrity-photo link, and Ashley Madison — may have targeted groups that are easily held at a distance, that won’t always be the case. Where’s the real harm in exposing the pubic-hair-dye kit purchased by a wealthy executive, or outing a cheating married man? we might ask ourselves. But it’s only a matter of time before regular mortals who don’t think they’ve sinned at all, beyond harshly criticizing their bosses or lamenting their meddling mothers-in-law, are exposed along with the easier targets. While the Ashley Madison hackers have set their sights on punishing cheaters, domestic or foreign extremists could resolve to punish anyone purchasing the wrong sorts of books, anyone listening to the wrong kinds of music, anyone of the wrong race or religion. Cackling when the mob goes after someone whose behavior seems suspect to you is one thing. It will be harder to laugh along when a different kind of mob decides that your sex-toy purchases, that N.W.A album you bought on iTunes, or those jokes you made about stockpiling plastic explosives in a private email make you a worthy target.
The Ashley Madison hack can’t be examined in a vacuum, because the long-term, widespread implications of how this hack is handled are enormous. Not only should we be asking just how good a job corporations, businesses, and the government are doing at keeping our information safe (answer: not so good, in fact), we should be vigorously fighting the ignorant attitude that transparency makes us better people, which is naïve to the point of being depressing. The root issue is simple: When the public is patrolled by a mob, the consequences are dire for everyone involved.
Likewise, those who blithely state “privacy is dead” as if they have no skin in the game, as if merely shrugging and accepting that we no longer have any rights as individuals, may be the most disheartening of all. Are we ready to agree that we, as citizens, have no recourse, that it’s perfectly natural that criminals and the corporate entities that fail to protect us from them would mishandle our assets and expose us all to fraud and identity theft and public attacks? Do we want our public servants targeting citizens by using information gained through criminal means?
I know this is pointless swimming against the tide, but I would actually go farther than Amanda and Erik: I don’t think that information obtained from the hack should be publicized by the media, period. I think this is true even in cases like Duggar, where the behavior would be newsworthy enough to be worth reporting if knowledge of it wasn’t obtained by illegal and privacy-threatening means.
I would also reiterate that even when hypocrisy is arguably newsworthy isn’t not really a very big deal. Josh Duggar’s patriarchal views of marriage and attempts to negatively influence public policy through lobbying and his reality show wouldn’t be any better if he adhered to his stated principles more consistently. And let’s be frank: most of the time even when publicly relevant hypocrisy is present, it’s more an excuse than a reason. Media oulets might have started their Ashley Madison stories with Duggar, but soon enough they will move on to not-even-really-celebrities with no influence on public policy and only the most tenuous hypocrisy angle. At bottom, people are mostly in it for the thigh-rubbing even when there’s a colorable argument that the behavior revealed by a hack is newsworthy.
…and as MDrew observes in consequences, the effects of the hack on ordinary people can be horrible.