In case you haven’t been following the news, the next big online privacy scandal is upon us: hackers calling themselves the “Impact Team” are threatening to release user records (including their real names and addresses) for the sites Ashley Madison and Established Men, unless these sites are taken down. If you aren’t familiar with either, the former is a site designed to help people find partners to have extra-relational affairs with, whereas the latter is a website “Where beautiful women and successful men meet.” The Impact Team is trying to market themselves as moral crusaders in the matter; they claim they are motivated to lash out at these sites (owned by Avid Life Media [ALM]) because:
- They claim ALM deceived its users about the sites’ “full delete” feature that users were charged to use (apparently the feature does not actually delete all of a user’s records)
- They morally object to infidelity, and desire to expose the users of Ashley Madison
- And they morally object to Established Men, which they perceive as “a prostitution / human trafficking website for rich men to pay for sex.”
I’m going to focus on the Ashley Madison portion of the privacy crisis, ignore the more typical concerns about website data collection and privacy that get brought up in situations like this, and argue that The Impact Team should not release these records. Infidelity, in my opinion, is wrong in the vast majority of cases*, but I think publicly releasing the user records of Ashley Madison’s affair-seeking users would be a much greater moral offense. I’m sure there are a number of compelling arguments against The Impact Team leaking this sensitive user data, but here are the big ones that I see…
First, publicly releasing Ashley Madison user data is physically dangerous, to both the cheaters themselves, and their primary partners. Consider, for example, the robust evidence that women who engage in infidelity are at greater risk for being victims of domestic violence. And for both men and women alike, infidelity is often used by domestic abusers to justify their violent actions. In one particularly concerning study, men who had partners that cheated on them reported feeling more homicidal and suicidal. Releasing Ashley Madison user data is therefore coupled with the very real likelihood that some of its users could be subjected to retaliatory physical–and potentially lethal–domestic violence, and the primary partners of these users could also be put in danger via increased suicidal ideation.
Publicly releasing Ashley Madison user data is also not consensual. This may seem a bizarre claim to make when discussing people who are deliberately seeking affairs. However, The Impact Team is assuming–as I think many people might–that partners who are being cheated on would want to be informed of their partner’s infidelity. This is not necessarily always the case though. Some colleagues of mine** were kind enough to share some data that they have collected on this matter (it is currently unpublished, but still informative), and it turns out that although many report a preference for being alerted to their partner’s infidelity, about 20% indicate some level of ambivalence or preference to NOT be alerted to their partner’s trespasses (see below).
Whatever their reasons, if someone doesn’t want to know that their partner is cheating on them, I think that prerogative should be respected. At the very least, if a third-party (e.g., a relative, friend, or acquaintance) is going to violate a person’s preference for non-disclosure about their partner’s cheating, it should be done by someone the person can impose relational consequences upon, and/or seek reparative action from, for violating their preference. And they should be able to keep the matter of their partner’s infidelity private, if they want to (i.e., not The Impact Team). Indeed, norms are sometimes established in social networks, in which infidelity took place, in order to manage and/or prevent members of the network from disclosing their knowledge of the infidelity to others. The Impact Team’s approach, conversely, will strip individuals of their autonomy to choose whether they want to become aware of their partner’s cheating AND will prevent them from being able to keep their partner’s infidelity private, should that be their preference.
More generally, publicly releasing Ashley Madison user data is not compassionate to those being cheated on. Being cheated on sucks; it’s something that can and does devastate individuals, relationships, and families. Yet as my colleagues’ data suggests, most people still would want to know if their partner was cheating on them. But if people are to be alerted to their partner’s infidelity, I think it should be done by others who genuinely care about the person in question, and are willing to emotionally support them through the revelation, not by some faceless organization–filled with an overzealous sense of self-righteousness. The Impact Team is not going to stick around to pick up the pieces after dropping their proverbial bomb, in order to provide emotional support and comfort to the millions of partners and family members affected by their hack. They will post the user data, and pat themselves on the back for a moral crusade well executed. Third-party disclosure of infidelity, however, deserves a solemn appreciation of the emotional devastation it will likely wreak; I’m not saying it shouldn’t ever be done, but it deserves to be an act reserved for those who are going to be willing to see the whole emotional event through. And sadly, I don’t think emotional support is on The Impact Team’s agenda.
So yeah, I hope that The Impact Team reconsiders their intended course of action. If not for these described reasons, then for no other reason than because I’m not eager to bet on the likelihood of a company shutting a very profitable business down under duress of a hacking attack. But beyond this particular data/privacy incident, I think this hacking illuminates that third-party disclosure of infidelity is a really morally complicated issue. Like most of you, I don’t morally condone infidelity. I do, however, think it’s important if you are considering disclosing a partner’s infidelity to a friend/family member/acquaintance, to ask yourself:
- Will this person (and/or their cheating partner) be physically endangered by this disclosure?
- Does this person want to know if their partner is cheating?
- Am I prepared to provide the necessary emotional support to this person after disclosing?
- And most importantly (and channeling a grad school mentor’s favorite conceptual question): how do I know the answers to items 1-3 (especially 1 & 2)?
* I can think of a few circumstances where I’m not that troubled by infidelity (e.g., someone trying to transition out of an abusive relationship, in order to ensure they have the emotional support/physical protection of another partner in place before leaving their abuser).
**Thanks to Amanda Gesselman, Jenny Howell, and Devon Price for letting me share a visualization of the data for this variable 🙂