Are Broken Marriage Vows Grounds for Blowing Up Someone’s Life?

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Photo: Photo Illustration. Photos: Getty Images.

Do you miss the good old days of tarring and feathering, town-square stockades, and public guillotining as entertainment? If so, you may be savoring this week's events, which reveal that the crime of betraying one's marriage vows is now prosecutable by journalists and hackers alike, punishable by public shaming online. Last week, Gawker publicly outed a Condé Nast executive, a married father of three, for allegedly soliciting a male escort. The story was later removed from the website by Gawker executives, but the damage had been done: The executive, many argued, was not a public figure, yet his private life is now public knowledge. Adding insult to injury, some Gawker editors took to social media to represent the piece as a stand against infidelity, thereby becoming the least likely defenders of the sanctity of marriage ever known.

Then, yesterday, hackers compromised cheater/dating site Ashley Madison and threatened to leak the identities of 37 million users unless the site is shut down immediately. The hackers claim to be alerting the public to the fact that the site's $19 "full delete" option, which purports to allow customers to permanently delete their records, doesn't actually do what it claims. So the hacker group is courageously defending online privacy by ... violating other people's online privacy. If Ashley Madison and the date-a-wealthy-dude site Established Men aren't permanently shut down, the hackers claim that they'll publish customer records, allegedly including nude photos and private sexual fantasies. The hackers wrote, "Too bad for those men, they're cheating dirt-bags and deserve no such discretion."

Which is to say: So-called cheating dirt-bags don't deserve to be protected from public shame granted by the entire globe, likely affecting their ability to find future employment, secure custody of their kids, and have any kind of peace of mind about love, friendships, and family relationships moving forward, but they do deserve a "permanent delete" option that actually works.

Let's back up for a minute and consider this new world, in which personal values might be policed by a gaggle of reporters, hackers, and onlookers. Keep in mind, the parties in question aren't tracking down pedophiles or murderers or those who commit hate crimes. They are seeking out and shaming regular human beings who had the audacity to seek sex outside of marriage.

Before you dredge up the image of every no-good cheater you've ever known, consider the many fallible individuals in the world who fall in love, get married, have children, and then find themselves questioning their sexuality, questioning their gender identity, or (less provocatively) simply questioning their lifelong choice of sexual partner. Maybe a spouse simply has a weak moment and makes a mistake. Sometimes people marry the wrong person. Sometimes people cheat and regret it immediately. Do we really want to indiscriminately drag every last one of these people into the middle of town and set their lives on fire for them?

As easy as it is to chuckle at a bunch of douchebag dudes getting outed for cheating, consider for a minute the full scope of ramifications endemic to our new, easily hacked lives. Every last one of us is hopelessly vulnerable to hacking today, thanks to insecure smartphones; insecure databases; absurd, ever-changing, and increasingly invasive Terms of Service; and supposedly benevolent megacorporations that illegally suck private data off unsecured Wi-Fi systems and legally compile private information gleaned from multiple apps to sell it to data brokers like Experian who might, in turn, haplessly sell it to Vietnamese identity-theft crime rings. If that sounds like some kind of Orwellian paranoid fantasy, it may be time to wake up and smell your credit-card numbers hitting the Dark Web.

But who knows? Maybe your smartphone and your computer are both encrypted and you change your 15-character passwords regularly. Maybe you don't happen to trust Google or Facebook or any email program and you don't use apps and you're essentially a Luddite who gives every sophisticated modern appliance the side-eye. Maybe you don't have and will never buy an appliance with a built-in recorder or camera, maybe you live far from people who own drones, maybe you never visit outdoor malls or any space that's videotaped 24/7, maybe you have no credit cards and have never applied for a government job and have no social security number. Maybe you've never strayed from your marriage, said the wrong thing about a co-worker, made an off-color joke in an email, taken a nude photo, aired an embarrassing secret in an anonymous online forum, paired up with a partner others might consider inappropriate, or made any other manner of very private fumble or mistake (or engaged in any behavior that others might see as a mistake) over the course of your lifetime. But if any of the above is true for you — and unless you're living in a shotgun shack in Outer Mongolia, I'm going to guess it is — then you're vulnerable.

This might be a good day for us to rethink our attitudes about the victims of hacking, whether it's Sony's Amy Pascal or the married dude next door, because the mob is coming for us, too. Do we really want to live in a world where no one is allowed to make mistakes? Are we arrogant enough to believe that we'll never screw up? If we do screw up eventually, do we want our future personal failings to be judged and prosecuted by a self-righteous mob who may or may not share our values and ideas about right and wrong?

When it's our private lives that are smeared across the internet, we might finally ask ourselves: Is this the revolution we were looking for?