BY RUPERT MYERS
The alleged hacking of Ashley Madison is bad news. It isn’t just bad for the 37 million people who are now about to be exposed as having logged onto a site whose slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair”. This hack threatens the peace and stability of their families. The fabric of millions of interpersonal relationships will be ripped apart. In the short term this will benefit restaurants, florists, and divorce lawyers, but the hack shows how the internet has changed society beyond our comprehension or control.
To be appalled by this hack does not require a particular view of adultery. Whether you hold that these men and women are the architects of their own misery who deserve everything that’s coming, or you couldn’t care less about the private lives of strangers, the power of individuals to disrupt the lives of millions is horrifying. Never before in history have we created the means by which one or two people could infiltrate privacy. A string of code can unpick lies the world over. Keystrokes can reveal our most intimate thoughts, dreams, and fears.
To those with the tools to see, we have created a world of glass walls and transparent envelopes. A generation has grown up believing that these walls are solid, and people who know no better trust that they enjoy a shell of privacy around their actions on the internet. Systems designed to be safer and more discreet, sites like Ashley Madison, should have made such privacy easier. The internet held the promise of finding like-minded people, sharing thoughts and feelings in honesty unconstrained by proximity. Children have grown into adults sharing their medical problems, sexual fantasies, and innermost vulnerabilities with a technology they still do not understand.
This generation living, flirting and lying on the internet is in for many more awful surprises in the coming years. It isn’t just the recklessness when it comes to privacy, it is also the way in which these revelations will normalise behaviour which was first properly facilitated by the internet. Whether you condone the users of Ashley Madison or are appalled by them, you may be about to discover that they are your beloved uncles, friends, and colleagues. It can’t be more than a few days after the leak that someone builds a tool allowing you to see which of your Facebook friends have signed up.
What the internet was supposed to make more private, it is more likely to make public. We have long been able to present a better, cleaner, tidier version of ourselves. The generation growing up with Snapchat, finding romance online, messaging the snarky private views of their work colleagues may be the first to lose that gap between our outer and inner selves. The mask is being removed by those with the knowledge and malicious intent to undo the knots.
Soon these criminal hackers will enjoy not just distributed currency and distributed networks, but software and servers that are built to withstand the most significant of government interventions. Within a few decades we have gifted to servers the information that could undermine our lives, uploaded to systems that are obviously leaky. It is impossible to predict what the fallout of this shift in our behaviour will be, but it seems likely that the toll will include heartbreak, violence, and despair.
The internet didn’t invent adultery, duplicity or criminality. Technology just seemed like it might make such things easier. In that sense, just as in the way that free expression has come to be policed, the early promise of the internet was a lie. What follows is anyone’s guess. The users of Ashley Madison and their loved ones are among the first to wake up to this unpleasant reality. They will not be the last.