|Ashley Madison, Half Moon Bay, and the Future of Privacy|
The Point of No Return
You may or may not have heard about the Ashley Madison hacking scandal, but if not then let me summarize here: A multi-national website named Ashley Madison, which was specifically for the purpose of having “affairs” or for cheating on your spouse, was hacked last month. The hackers released a small portion of the 40 million member names a month ago, and then on Tuesday released the entire databases, including one database with member ID’s and email addresses, and another with billing records for the period from 2008 through to the present.
So to summarize: We’ve got possibly 40 million “adulterers” out there with their records now in the semi-public domain.
As a technologist, and for reasons I’ll explain in a moment I thought that this might be a watershed event, one that hasn’t really garnered the attention that people should be giving it. So on Wednesday I went into the dark web (the place where the database had been uploaded- it is not available (yet) on the internet) and downloaded the entire 10 gigabytes of data. After that I decided to search the billing records for any record with 94019 in it. (Numerous sites have popped up offering the ability to search for an email address to see if it was on the list, but I took the approach that no one on the list would use an email address that was known, so instead of searching the members database for an email alias I took the more painstaking route and searched all the records for actual billing- which included (for each record) name, address, last four of the CC, amount billed, and a few other details. Not only were people on this list verifiably identifiable, it is somewhat indisputable that they used the service- and paid to do so as well…)
What I found after searching through the millions of records completely blew me away. No less than 64 individuals in the 94019 area code not only went to this site, they paid at least $49 each (and in some cases thousands) to exchange communications with other people they wanted to have an affair with. That total of 64 included three women, and numerous individuals who are at least somewhat prominent in the community. (I’m not going to go any further than that in identifying people- this is not about outing people for what they have done in private- it’s about what this means to our community and to our nation…)
Thus the point of this thread isn’t to detail the individual choices made in private by people here in HMB, it is instead to place this entire affair into context: Let’s say you were trying to get a contract with the City of Half Moon Bay- and you knew about one of these individuals (no, I’m not saying anyone working for the City is on the list…), just think of the leverage you would have over them. Now repeat that leverage a million times throughout the country. Or another possibility: You want your father-in-law to loan you $500,000 so you can build your new house. And you tell him that if he doesn’t you’re mother in-law will get the bad news. Or you want your neighbor to give you an easement you’ve been asking for over the past ten years- and you tell him… Or you’re mad at your ex-spouse and you want them to give you more visitation with your children, and if they don’t…
The variations are endless and horrifying to think about.
In round numbers 15-20 million people in the US have just been exposed to the very real possibility of blackmail- in fact if I had to guess I’d assume that it is already happening. And to me this is a horrifying and ground-breaking event that we will look back on as a turning-point in the progress of technology.
Which brings me to the rubicon we just crossed: We’ve all known for some time that little that we do online is really private despite our attempts to make it so. We have known the government is looking at our data, but we figured as long as we kept it legal we’d be OK. No more can we trust that to be the truth. ANYTHING you do online, whether with a secure paid service, or in the hinterlands of the dark web, all of it can be found and exposed if someone with an axe to grind (not necessarily against you) wants to invest the time and effort to do so.
With the release of these databases we have crossed into new territory- that is only going to become more prevalent as each day passes. In the not too distant future there will be literally no secrets- nothing that you can assume someone, somewhere, doesn’t know, or can’t find out. I guess the moral of the story is don’t do anything at all online that you wouldn’t want your spouse, neighbor, children, or community to know about- because based on recent examples the chances are good that someone, somewhere, is going to know about it, and if they do it is at least possible that the info you wish to keep hidden is going to end up in hands you would rather it didn’t.