Generally, I’m inclined to keep my opinions to myself, or to veil them in metaphors wrapped in allegories that are woven into a plotlines. But I have to confess this whole Ashley Madison thing pulls my ripcord.
As a writer whose favorite hobby is turning technology loose on hapless characters, recent events have given me a chance to watch idle conjecture unfold in real-time. And it’s been sad. And scary. And unsurprising.
For anyone not familiar with the story, Ashley Madison is a dating website that caters to those seeking extramarital affairs. Call it the Facebook of infidelity. Ashley Madison members paid upwards of $400 in fees pursuing adulterous liaisons on the site.
In July of this year, a person or persons calling themselves The Impact Team threatened to reveal Ashley Madison member information unless Avid Life Media took the site down. True to their word, in mid-August The Impact Team began releasing user data, including customer names, addresses and sexual preferences.
Since that first data leak, the breach has been linked to firings, resignations, blackmail, identity theft, and most tragic of all, suicide. Avid Live CEO Noel Biderman stepped down on August 28, and all over the world people were rightly (and sometimes wrongly) revealed as cheaters. Marriages fell apart, kids got confused, in-laws got irate, and divorce lawyers everywhere put down hefty deposits on next year’s BMW.
“Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the Impact Team said, and many echoed this righteous sentiment.
But as Glenn Greenwald put it: “[I]t’s worth remembering that the reality is often far more complex than the smug moralizers suggest.”
Every victim of the hacking has a story, a reason. A family. We’re talking about real people, real families, living real consequences. As one who has spent most of their life in the shadow of a family suicide, I can say that no family deserves this.
But I bring this up not because it’s wrong to extort, blackmail or bully (although I could write a book on it), or to tell you that hackers are scary and that the internet is a dangerous place filled with hackers and trolls and lies–but instead to talk about a larger phenomenon that’s happening before our very eyes, something too big for us to fully comprehend yet.
Paper, you had a good run
Five hundred years ago, if you were wealthy enough to have servants and fortunate enough to be able to read and write, you might have been able to send and receive messages cross-country. Just a smidge more than 100 years ago, the first tentative radio signals reached across the Atlantic. Contrast this with today, where information travels to the furthest reaches of the world in a nanosecond.
Our amazing internet is faster than the telephone, more powerful than print, able to reach remote locations with a single click. And it’s not just for personal communication or entertainment. A giant information cloud rains down on us 24/7.
None of us ever has to wonder how many movies Wes Craven produced or if the local theater is doing a revival this weekend. We don’t need to read maps or know phone numbers or remember appointments—or spend one unoccupied moment, thanks to our smartphones and the rapidly growing market of devices being developed to satisfy our information itch.
It’s a small exchange too: devices are cheap, and apps and web tools generally have one small price: we tell them about us, and they tell us everything. Give us everything. We happily oblige though, because we need it. Last week a friend of mine was hurrying through Manhattan to catch a flight at LaGuardia when his Moto X bricked. “Worst thing ever,” he said. “I can’t believe I made it.”
Indeed. How did we manage? A question we often ask ourselves when we’re standing around during the intermission of Washington Middle School’s production of Our Town, while dialing up the current score on the Vikings game.
And so each of us willingly carries around what amounts to personal surveillance device: complete with camera and GPS, containing our personal information: our hopes, our dreams, our lives. A social media dossier is now attached to everything we do, from applying to a job to meeting and attracting a mate.
And we’re only now beginning to realize: What happens in Vegas stays on Instagram. Forever, and ever and ever.
Once something becomes data, getting rid of it is difficult, if not impossible. Data can be duplicated, screenshotted, archived or spidered and cataloged forever. The Library of Congress has started saving tweets as part of America’s historical record. And I don’t even want to think about what the NSA is up to these days. And here’s something else to consider: how many of those Terms of Service do you actually read?
Yet all of us are willing subscribers, eager to trade our personal slice of data for any convenience. Meanwhile, webbots and screen scrapers mine the cloud, looking for vulnerabilities. Eager for something to use.
And while you might find it hard to sympathize with Lothario McCheaterson and the Ashley Madison debacle, this breach illustrates again the ease with which data can be high-jacked by anyone determined to obtain it.
There are no shortage of information breaches on the news. Nearly 2 billion accounts have been compromised since 2004. And you don’t need to be a victim of identity theft to know it won’t be long before simmering privacy and security issues go full boil.
But still, wouldn’t it be cool to have your needed groceries automatically delivered to your door without you even having to crack a list? And to have them remember to include balsamic vinaigrette, which you only just mentioned to your spouse in passing? And isn’t that creepy? But so worth it, because it makes our lives better and easier. Up until the point our identities are stolen or our health insurer removes all references to Ben & Jerry’s from our grocery lists, in the name of “improving our lives.”
So what happens when your medical record is compromised and you’re turned down for the job you’re after because of that 2012 prescription for Prozac? What happens when your mortgage loan is rejected because of your flip remark about running off to Bimini on Facebook? And what about when you can’t get life insurance because there is just way too much Lana Del Ray on your Spotify?
No, the risk isn’t just from hackers wearing black hats, breaching networks in the dark of night. We face just as much peril from the boardroom deal between your bank and your health insurer.
The right to individual privacy has always ground against the needs of society. If some nutjob was plotting to incinerate the Ben & Jerry’s freezer at your local market, it’d be good to know about it, right? If someone means to harm us and we could stop them by knowing their plan, it’s a good thing, no? But the waters quickly muddy when you realize the endless number of scenarios and realize there is no gold standard in the war between privacy and right to know.
And when the prize is as vast and valuable as our collective information, expect things only to get more complicated. And the only thing certain is that we are all at risk.
Mira! Mira la tormenta.
Which reminds me, I wonder if Netflix still has Terminator 1 and 2.