It was in 1991, during the lurid Senate confirmation hearings over the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a career Republican functionary with scant judicial qualifications, for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearings were testy, and among weightier sins, Thomas was allegedly a regular at a D.C. video rental shop that specialized in porn.
Now I didn’t care for Thomas politically, and I cheered for the women who characterized him as an office creep and borderline predator. But I was chilled by the idea that his personal movie choices could first, be unearthed, and then, be brandished as evidence of character. Really? Is that where we want to go?
Little did I know. This was way pre-Internet. We now inhabit a world where the volume of personal data that’s routinely gathered by anonymous vendors is immeasurably greater and says much more about us than mere video rental records do.
What’s more, as we all continue to learn, the places where this personal data is kept are more porous, more accessible, and more frequently pillaged than any of its self-serving keepers ever willingly admit.
But even if the data can’t be kept private, can’t we at least keep it from becoming public?
Enter Ashley Madison. That’s not some debutante, but a Canadian-based online hookup network for aspiring adulterers. Its catchphrase is, “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Ashley’s marketing persuaded more than 32 million people to sign on since 2007, and it seems reasonable to figure some proportion of them had satisfactory dalliances. The parent company, Avid Life Media, wasn’t taking any chances, and hedged its bets by also creating Established Men, which offers romantic opportunities for the rich; Man Crunch, for gay dating; one site for swinging couples, and another for the overweight but libidinous.
So far so good, until July, when a web security expert named Brian Krebs broke the news that Ashley had been hacked, and information about millions of its customers had been uploaded to the Internet. The hackers, an outfit called The Impact Team, said they were outraged by Avid Life Media’s policy of letting customers expunge their identifying information for a $19 fee.
The hackers said the offer was fraudulent, the listings were left intact, and Ashley had pocketed $1.7 million last year for a bogus service. So the hackers helped themselves to acres of personal information about Ashley’s users and posted it online, hoping the furious customers would sue Ashley for failing to safeguard their privacy.
In other words, the hackers sought to avenge a fraud by punishing the defrauded, and millions of names of wannabe adulterers were posted online.
So the question is, how much of that information was honest news? What use should the media make of it? If news organizations begin scouring the listings, what should they do with data suggesting that a TV star, or a high-level bureaucrat, or a member of Congress, or a candidate for public office, once went trolling for playmates through a channel he or she had every assurance would remain secret?
As it happens, the media were hungry, but turned out to be picky eaters. An Continue reading