In July of 2015, hackers from the group Impact Team announced that they had hacked Ashley Madison, a website catering to married individuals seeking an illicit relationship. The hackers claimed that they were in possession of account information for over 30 million users of the site.
Impact Team told Ashley Madison that they would release all the information they took if the website did not shut down. The site’s owners refused to bow to the pressure, and the data flooded out for everyone to see.
The entire incident has sparked a heated debate. The nature of the Ashley Madison site leads some to believe that the users “had it coming,” in some respects. Since the website’s sole purpose is to encourage and facilitate extramarital affairs, one can assume that the patrons of the website had every intention of cheating on their spouses or committed partners— definitely not the ideal way of resolving relationship difficulties.
However, some people maintain the purpose of Ashley Madison does not excuse the actions of the hackers. The fact remains that the Ashley Madison users relied on security, anonymity, and protection, all of which was promised them by the site’s owners. With the incursion of the hackers, that trust was broken.
Ashley Madison is no longer a safe, trusted haven for people desiring to break their marriage vows, and the website is no doubt hemorrhaging money as a result of the breach. In fact, several users have already begun proceedings to sue Ashley Madison for failing to protect their information. The Canadian parent company of the site, Avid Life Media, has put up a reward of $500,000 Canadian, or $377,000 in American currency, to motivate those with information about the hackers to come forward.
While the Ashley Madison site is disreputable, it is not illegal. When the hackers released the data they had collected, they jeopardized the stability of thousands of families. According to reports, some users have committed suicide as a result of their indiscretions going public. Others have been victims of extortion and blackmail. Still others may never recover from the effect on their personal and work relationships.
No matter what the target, the attack on private citizens’ personal information was a crime. Imagine the results if hackers focused on another site, perhaps that of a health insurance company, a dating website, or a major online retailer? Suppose they made demands that the company could not meet and then released information, including financial data, personal health records, social security numbers, and more? The effects would be devastating to millions of people.
The motive of the attack— shutting down Ashley Madison— may have been well-intentioned. However, if the perpetrators escape completely unscathed, without any form of punishment, the entire incident encourages cyber-terrorists to act against others, confident in their own anonymity. Of course, the attack has had another effect as well— discouraging users from trusting their personal information to a website like Ashley Madison. No matter how many guarantees a company may make, the discretion of the user is always the best safeguard.