Wednesday 21 February 2018
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Ashley Madison’s Privacy ‘Oops’

Ashley Madison is a different kind of company — feeding the appetites of the curious, the forlorn and the insatiable. Could that have been you? There aren’t many worldly entities designed to encourage extramarital affairs beyond momentary encounters, but here is one that promises delectable treats for all who would like to indulge. Admittedly, even with my privacy creds, I had never heard of Ashley until the story of their hack — perhaps because I am happily married or that nobody tipped me off because I wouldn’t be a candidate for their services.

In the shock and awe rubble of Ashley’s hack, questions about privacy abound. Is this their “oops”? Answers are forthcoming in parts and parcels — which raise more questions. Weren’t Ashley’s members promised privacy? Did Ashley adequately protect their member’s data and relations? How could the hack occur? How easily will significant other’s find out about their partner’s secret sex lives? Who is having an affair — isn’t that interesting? Will the press report on the juiciest tidbits and names revealed? Etc.

Listen, the Web is the great equalizer — and I guess that means that law abiders (not in the biblical sense) are free to choose services that indulge their whims and indiscretions. Democracy and capitalism are all about free will and choices, within the umbrella of the laws of the land. And I do believe that the quality of a marriage and the choice of people to abide by their wedding vows and biblical canons or violate them is not a purvey of the citizen-state. However I also believe that the higher road is always a wise choice, as Ashley’s sole purpose is to feed the ecstatic whims of unbounded imaginations — and after the ecstasy there is always the laundry. History has demonstrated that — as our lives have also provided plenty of evidence of — Mom is going to find out.

If you live your life with a healthy dollop of dignity and integrity, chances are you won’t be a victim to a crime such as what impacted Ashley Madison and their members. Betray that and it won’t matter whether you’re online or offline. You’re going to create problems for yourself when the laundry comes calling — and most likely it will come calling.

Sure you can try to be discreet about your indiscretions. But the truth is that most of the time our indiscretions get discovered. And with the Web, that is truer than ever. Ashley Madison works the same way. It’s a website of indiscretions, which in this case made it a very attractive bull’s eye for hackers. If Ashley Madison was a site for open marriages where people could be themselves and nobody cared, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. This hack would never have made the front pages or even likely occurred. But that wasn’t the company’s business model. Illicit behavior was and thusly was responded to in kind.

To be clear I am not condoning the hackers nor examining their motives — because the simple fact is that regardless of who the hackers are, the leaders at Ashley Madison should have seen this coming. Surely when designing a site where people are being indiscreet about their sexual affairs, the powers that be at Madison should have taken extra steps to ensure protection for its users. Where was the airtight encryption of user data? The airtight infrastructure? The firewalled network? The fact that the company was so cavalier is really surprising. More than most sites, the Ashley’s entire premise is built on promised privacy for cheaters. So basically the company failed at the one thing it rested its foundation on.

If you’re one of the 35 million Ashley Madison members, you’re dealing with all the fallout now, buying the flowers and asking for forgiveness. You’re probably embarrassed and feeling kind of stupid. After all, an online affair? Seriously? Could you have found a brighter neon sign broadcasting a fire on the mountain?

But that’s another story. There’s something else going on here. Another message delivered for all of us: If you’re going to be careless online then be careless with the knowledge that you’ll more than likely be discovered. If you’re posting on Facebook a picture of you doing anything that could be considered indiscrete or in bad judgment or taste, just know that your bosses, peers, professors, parents, Obamacare, the government, and [your present or future] kids are going to see it — for the rest of your life and beyond, creepy as that reality sounds.

Yes, many people are laughing about Ashley Madison getting hacked. But in this case I really don’t believe pointing a finger at Ashley’s flawed privacy structures makes any sense. And watching Ashley fight back and yell at the hackers is perhaps the most absurd part of it all. That is a PR smokescreen and distraction at best, demonstrating a lack of truly accountable leadership at worse. Then again, what Ashley promised was pretty much bottom barrel stuff anyhow, so their corporate actions seem perfectly in line with their service offering. Remember people, their slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Really, that’s it.

Word on the street is that the cheaters got their just rewards and comics around the world couldn’t have dreamed up a better story for delivering hilarious punch lines. One comic suggested their new slogan to be, “Life just got much longer for some of you.” Funny indeed, but that’s not the real story here. Take a good look in the mirror and think about your privacy. The story here is that if anybody really thinks that they can safely do something illicit, never mind illegal, online, take the Ashley Madison incident as great proof that you can’t.

We live in different times. It’s not just your past that catches up with you now. In the digital age, it’s what you post and the actions you take in the present, too. The world has a far better chance of finding out your secrets today than ever before in history. My advice: at the very least, keep your pants buttoned up online if not everywhere else.

Originally published on Huff Post.

Mark Weinstein, is one of the USA's leading social media and privacy experts and CEO of Mark is one of the founders of social networking, a leading privacy advocate, and author of the award-winning Habitually Great book series. Mark is revolutionizing online communication at MeWe, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, as a key MeWe Advisor. Mark writes a technology column for Huffington Post, and has been featured on CNN, Fox News, and has been honored as "Privacy By Design Ambassador" by the Canadian Government.

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