Joanna Schroeder says that just because these people did something unethical doesn’t mean you should abandon your ethics, too.
Nobody likes a cheater. Not even cheaters like cheaters, when it comes down to it (unless they’re sleeping with the cheater). And very few people want to be cheating. It’s a character flaw, a weakness, sometimes even an addiction.
That’s probably why so many chuckled last month when a hacker group threatened to leak the names, payment history, and even profiles (including sexual proclivities) of people who had accounts on notorious cheating website Ashley Madison.
Well, apparently it’s happened.
A data dump, 9.7 gigabytes in size, was posted on Tuesday to the dark web using an Onion address accessible only through the Tor browser. The files appear to include account details and log-ins for some 32 million users of the social networking site, touted as the premier site for married individuals seeking partners for affairs. Seven years worth of credit card and other payment transaction details are also part of the dump, going back to 2007.
It’s easy to be mad at people who cheat, particularly at men (who make up the vast majority of their users), and for many people, “they got what they deserved” is a hard to resist saying.
But before we go peering into the data (when it hits mainstream outlets), it’s important we consider a few things first.
1. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and violating people’s privacy is wrong.
This was an illegal hack of people’s personal information. It wasn’t meant for your eyes or mine, and that means we shouldn’t look. Personally, I believe in the fundamental principles of consent: Only yes means yes, even when it comes to private info and photos.
The fact that these people were probably doing something wrong doesn’t impact my ethical decision-making. My ethics about privacy and consent stand, regardless of how guilty the Ashley Madison users might be.
2. Not all of the people on this list cheated.
Some may have gone to see what the deal was, how the program worked. Maybe they considered cheating, maybe they were just curious. Maybe they wanted to check to see if their own spouse was cheating, so they made an account. Regardless, there is no guarantee that all of these people actually cheated or intended to.
Does a person who considered cheating deserve to be piled in with people who actually did cheat? Do they deserve to be publicly shamed, even if they chose to do what was right in the end?
How do you know which are which? Is it worth the risk?
3. Do you want to be a part of a blackmail scheme?
This was blackmail. The hackers asked for Ashley Madison to be removed from the web, or the private info would be released.
Regardless of whether you think Ashley Madison should exist, are you the type that endorses blackmail?
If not, you simply cannot endorse this hacking.
4. Consider the spouses and children of the people on the list.
Yes, it’s the (possible) cheater’s fault that he or she signed up for this service, so the sadness and hurt is ultimately on the cheater’s shoulders. But how much are you willing to participate in this public shaming, knowing that the person’s kids and partner will most likely be harmed, too?
Imagine your sister, father, or best friend is the one being cheated on. Would you be willing to tell the whole world that they were cheated on?
5. We don’t know which people on the list have consensual open relationships.
There are all sorts of marriages, and some of them involve allowing partners to hook up with or have relationships with those outside of the marriage. Yes, this is rare, and cheating is much more common, but the fact that some of these users might have been doing something their partner was fully aware of is something you have to consider.
Do the people who weren’t lying to or keeping secrets from their partners deserve to have their names lumped in with liars and cheats? Do their partners deserve to have this info about their marriage made public?
Ultimately, when is doing something ethically problematic worth it?
This is something each person has to answer for his or herself. Personally, if it turns out that people preaching family values and condemning others (i.e. preachers who says gay people are sinners who should be cast out from the church until they promise not to be gay) are on this list, I think the benefit to others in exposing the hypocrisy is worth violating their individual privacy.*
But other than that, I don’t see much value in exposing people’s partners and families to the humiliation of this information going public. And certainly everyone else doesn’t need to be lumped in with those hypocrites.
And it’s not like exposing cheaters has an effect on making people not cheat… All this hack is going to do is make people more cautious about privacy on the Internet.
This isn’t your business, and it isn’t mine. And just because these people did something you consider unethical doesn’t mean you should abandon your ethics, too.
8/19/15 7:50pm PST: I’d like to update this post now that I’ve read compelling evidence that Josh Duggar was probably using Ashley Madison’s services (two credit cards with billing addresses traced to his home and a family, as well as birthdates similar to Duggar’s), so I can make clear that despite the fact that 99.99% of the time, these hacks do more harm than good, in Duggar’s case, I think his hypocrisy needed to be exposed. I’m glad I had earlier noted that cases like these might make exposing a public figure worth it, and Duggar is an example.
Duggar has been furthering oppression and bigotry with his anti-gay hatred and his former employment by the Family Research Council, which is supposed to keep a focus on traditional family values. He claimed he was a reformed man after being exposed as a child sexual abusers, and for some reason people believed him But he needed to be stopped from the harm he was causing.
While Duggar and the FRC were actively harming LBGTQ+ folks, it turns out that Duggar was probably living a life that was the opposite of the one he preached. If this is a way to get him to stop harming others, I am for it.