TNW València is officially sold out 🇪🇸 We will see you in 3 days

This article was published on August 19, 2015

Sharing data from the Ashley Madison leak is deplorable, even if you think people deserve it

Sharing data from the Ashley Madison leak is deplorable, even if you think people deserve it
Owen Williams
Story by

Owen Williams

Former TNW employee

Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their word Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their words friendlier. In his spare time he codes, writes newsletters and cycles around the city.

Last month Ashley Madison, a website that encourages and enables people’s infidelities, was hacked. No doubt you’ve heard about it in amongst the media’s collective glee that people are getting something they “deserve.”

At first it seemed like the data obtained by the hackers might not be leaked in full but today the attackers released 10GB of data that was stored in the company’s databases — the entirety of its user information, along with internal documents, passwords and details.

The leak contains everything from the email addresses of Ashley Madison’s users down to their physical addresses, phone numbers, employers and credit card numbers. A devastating amount of information that can ruin millions of lives, even if the act of using the site rests on shady moral ground.

The reaction to the leak of user data in full has been repugnant at best.


Twitter is full of gleeful users poring over the information, finding out who from their country, town or street was using the service. Digging through for notable people, executives or someone that might be a scandal.

It’s ethically unacceptable to pore over the data, tweet personal information in plain text or whisper it amongst friends, yet the tech world is collectively treating it as the greatest treasure trove known to man kind, without remembering the actual crime committed to obtain such data.

We don’t get to play god with people’s lives and view it as “their fault” for using such a service or failing to recognise the security risks.

Ultimately, a crime was committed and the victims are Ashley Madison’s millions of unsuspecting users. I’m not condoning their moral choices, but circulating people’s private data because they “deserve it” is wrong.

It’s not OK to hack into someone else’s server, download data and put it in the public eye like it’s nothing. Yes, Ashley Madison might be gross and creepy, but it’s not for us to decide — or have enough information — about the people who used the service’s fate.

Based on raw data alone there’s not enough information to place blame on users found in the leak.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of the users in the database signed up simply to find out what the hell the site was about. Others are likely to have had their identity signed up for them (Ashley Madison didn’t do checks on email address validity).

By amplifying the drama and hackers that released the data, we’re creating incentives for attacks and leaks like this to continue. We’re encouraging hackers to keep releasing private information. We’re rewarding the behaviour of what amounts to digital terrorism.

The devastating Sony leak last year saw journalists and gossip sites sift through data endlessly, forcing private business deals, emails and inter-office scandals into the public eye that might never — and probably should have never — been revealed.

That’s nothing compared to what’s happening with Ashley Madison, because people have decided that it’s morally wrong to use the service, therefore the act of hacking is somehow acceptable.

It’s an emotionally charged conundrum: on one hand, these people don’t deserve privacy because they did something you disagree with — but on the other, you’d never want your own data in the public eye.

We’ve been arguing for years that we have a right to privacy from being spied on by the NSA, but when private data that turns against our moral compass is released into the world it’s suddenly trivialised because we believe these people are receiving justice.

Everyone has something to hide. We all have a right to privacy. Poking the finger at people that appear in the Ashley Madison database isn’t anyone’s right, even if they’ve committed a sin by your standard.

How would you feel about your Facebook messages being opened to the world? The contents of your computer’s documents folder? Or your Snapchat pictures?

The hackers are the deplorable actors in this dangerous game, not the victims of the attack.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.