The data dump is starting to hit the fan for Ashley Madison users. Several high-profile individuals have been “outed” so far, with Gawker publishing details from Josh Duggar’s profile that included his payment history, preferred sexual acts, and turn-ons. (Duggar admitted he had an account today.) USA Today reported that cities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and Texas are investigating whether their employees used municipal email accounts to sign up. According to a BBC report, an Australian radio DJ called a woman to let her know her husband had signed up for the website while she was on the air. She replied, “Are you freaking kidding me?” and hung up soon after.
In other words, private information that was stolen by criminals is now being used by the public to shame and punish individuals who assumed that their information would remain private. And the public isn’t demanding that reporters, DJs, civic employees, and others refrain from riffling through files that were secured through illegal means and never should have seen the light of day; it’s greedily searching through these databases for dirt. At the exact moment when citizens worldwide should be noticing that we’re all living in glass houses, many of us are picking up stones instead.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Human beings have never been shy about imposing their highly subjective views and principles on one another’s private lives — nor have they hesitated to punish the slightest variation in behavior, the slightest straying from the so-called norm. Our history books are packed with examples of unruly gaggles of humans dictating the values of private individuals, from witch-burning to red letters to public stocks to public guillotining.
In the bad old days (and today, in impoverished or corrupt places), the mob often rules in matters of morality because the state doesn’t have the resources to enforce the laws of the land. And in some ways, all of that ‘90s-era talk about the internet as a kind of “Wild West” of unknown, ungovernable virtual space has finally come to fruition. As Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum write in The Future of Violence, thanks to the wide distribution of advanced technology these days, the means of disruption and attack are now dispersed across the population. Threats from hackers (and drones!) can come from any corner of the globe, and can affect anyone on the globe. No matter how much any of us claims to have nothing to hide, the fact remains that we’re all vulnerable — and hacking is the tip of the iceberg. Anyone with an email account, a credit card, a Wi-Fi connection, or health records online is exposed.
And while the biggest hacks to receive attention lately — the Sony hack, the Fappening’s nude-celebrity-photo link, and Ashley Madison — may have targeted groups that are easily held at a distance, that won’t always be the case. Where’s the real harm in exposing the pubic-hair-dye kit purchased by a wealthy executive, or outing a cheating married man? we might ask ourselves. But it’s only a matter of time before regular mortals who don’t think they’ve sinned at all, beyond harshly criticizing their bosses or lamenting their meddling mothers-in-law, are exposed along with the easier targets. While the Ashley Madison hackers have set their sights on punishing cheaters, domestic or foreign extremists could resolve to punish anyone purchasing the wrong sorts of books, anyone listening to the wrong kinds of music, anyone of the wrong race or religion. Cackling when the mob goes after someone whose behavior seems suspect to you is one thing. It will be harder to laugh along when a different kind of mob decides that your sex-toy purchases, that N.W.A album you bought on iTunes, or those jokes you made about stockpiling plastic explosives in a private email make you a worthy target.
The Ashley Madison hack can’t be examined in a vacuum, because the long-term, widespread implications of how this hack is handled are enormous. Not only should we be asking just how good a job corporations, businesses, and the government are doing at keeping our information safe (answer: not so good, in fact), we should be vigorously fighting the ignorant attitude that transparency makes us better people, which is naïve to the point of being depressing. The root issue is simple: When the public is patrolled by a mob, the consequences are dire for everyone involved.
Likewise, those who blithely state “privacy is dead” as if they have no skin in the game, as if merely shrugging and accepting that we no longer have any rights as individuals, may be the most disheartening of all. Are we ready to agree that we, as citizens, have no recourse, that it’s perfectly natural that criminals and the corporate entities that fail to protect us from them would mishandle our assets and expose us all to fraud and identity theft and public attacks? Do we want our public servants targeting citizens by using information gained through criminal means?
This isn’t just a particularly suspenseful episode of Mr. Robot we’re witnessing. The world is changing quickly, and real lives are being destroyed by the recklessness at play on civic, corporate, and individual levels. Every other day, there are new security breaches, and more private information is shared with strangers. Simply proclaiming that all of our secrets will be revealed, or naïvely asserting that you have nothing to hide — this is the behavior of citizens who don’t know history, or who’ve surrendered completely to a modern sense of learned helplessness, or who simply don’t care about protecting the weakest or the most vulnerable among us. Yes, that includes cheaters. It includes all of us. We are all vulnerable now. We are all at risk.