Hack of meet-up site for adulterers produces plenty of embarrassment, but does it produce news?

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 article in the Columbia Journalism Review reported a couple of instances where news organizations singled out individuals whose online quests raised eyebrows, notably a well-known TV comedy star and a state GOP official. The Associated Press found White House employees using their office computers, and found it newsworthy because Ashley registrants might be vulnerable to blackmail. Breitbart.com, the news site founded by the late GOP gadfly Andrew Breitbart, outed the son of a prominent member of the Obama administration (who denied the listing was his.)

Then there was Reuters report that in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, one in five adults had apparently signed on with Ashley, making it the world’s most vulnerable city to possible privacy breaches. Why so many registrants? Ottawa, one informant suggested, was “the city fun forgot.”

While there’s no way to prevent anybody with a laptop from scouring the hackers’ downloads to find recognizable names among the Ashley Madison customers, the overall restraint the news media have shown is worth noting.

After all, this information can cause a lot of pain. An anecdote in the CJR report describes a radio show in Australia where a caller who was bellyaching about her husband is told by one of the program’s hosts that his name is on the Ashley customer list. Clearly stunned, she hangs up. “I don’t know if we should have done that,” the host remarks.

So to what degree is this legitimate news? What should the connection be between private yearnings and exposure in the public square?

The disturbing prospect we now face is one where the media could regard purloined personal data as part of an available stockpile that could be drawn from, as a ready reference library, if the individuals become otherwise newsworthy.

But the nexus between private and public should, in my view, be close and transparent before media use such data. Infidelity is a matter of grave concern to the spouse. Beyond that, I’ll need to hear the argument for wide public dissemination.

Distasteful as they were, those disclosures about Clarence Thomas’s video rentals reflected on his sworn denials to specific allegations about his office misbehavior—that he had referred to porn stars in conversations with workmates or had made grossly suggestive comments to them. It’s worth knowing if a guy heading to the Supreme Court is not just a sleaze, but a perjurer.

It’s regrettable that Ashley Madison couldn’t maintain the privacy it pledged, but that’s no reason for the media to ignore the discretion that everybody involved in this dubious endeavor agreed to, and expected.

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