Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, step forwards. May I have the password?
Dr. Bill Harford: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s right, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password… for the house?
Dr. Bill Harford: The password for the house?
Red Cloak: Yes?
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry… I seem to… have forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference… whether you have forgotten it… or if you never knew it. Kindly remove your mask.
This famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut portrays Tom Cruise as a self-assured and curious young doctor who, upon stumbling into a bacchanalian orgy attended by costumed aristocrats, very quickly realizes that he is out of his depth. It’s not Kubrick’s best film, but it’s arguably his creepiest.
For 37 million users of the online dating site Ashley Madison, the request to “remove their masks” was neither kind nor open to negotiation. The website, which allows married individuals a way to secretly cheat on their spouses, was recently the target of anonymous hackers who stole sensitive customer data and threatened to post it online. Suddenly, a number of very nervous Ashley Madison customers were at risk for having their data compromised, including 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses.
Avid Life Media (ALM), the parent company that runs Ashley Madison (along with Cougar Life and Established Men), acknowledged the breach in a public statement. That was not enough to prevent The Impact Team, the group behind the attack, from dumping 9.7 gigabytes of account details to the dark web. Within hours, everything related to a user’s profile was available to the public: credit card transactions, email addresses, phone numbers, even full descriptions of the sexual fantasies users were looking to fulfill with their extramarital affairs.
It didn’t take long for observers on social media to express their amusement at what appeared to be poetic justice for thousands of cheating spouses. Several media pundits, in fact, mentioned the public shaming that took place at the expense of those whose data was hacked. In any event, Twitter was alive with commentary on the subject:
A number of journalists questioned the accuracy of the data exposed as a result of the breach. Computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post that the appearance of an email address did not automatically incriminate the owner of that account as an adulterer — especially since the site administrators never bothered to verify email addresses:
For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner. You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh or even to find out if someone else was on the site … if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing.
Another outcome has been the number of research firms who have used data pulled from the breach and created graphical charts depicting the cheating habits of Ashley Madison users. We can find out which cities appear to have the highest ratio of adultery, how many Australian government officials have Ashley Madison accounts, the ratio of male to female users worldwide, and how many Ashley Madison users work at IBM.
More importantly, though, are the effects of the breach on those whose data was exposed. The secret sharing app Whisper, for example, offers users an anonymous platform for posting lessons learned from being caught having an affair. In some ways, the Ashley Madison case study represents a perfect storm of all the ingredients necessary to bring out life ruination: casual sex, random infidelity, wanton bullying, technostress paranoia. Even in these digitally-permeant times, we continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology when it comes to our private lives.
Why We Can’t Trust Computers
Humans operate under the condition of short-term memory, also called working memory, on a daily basis. The brain tries to make sense of the sensations it receives by using what it already understands from experience, forming patterns based on previous behavior. This is the connective tissue that links key functions involving reason and comprehension.
The problem is that our brains have limited capacity. We can only process small packets of data in roughly 20-second bursts, unless the information is repeated on an endless loop. Our brains are also affected by impulses in judgment, which are influenced differently from one person to another, reflecting wide nuances in maturity and social development.
Computers, on the other hand, are the masters of long-term memory. Server farms for websites like Ashley Madison stay in business precisely because they are able to store large amounts of information for extended periods of time. Computers have no moral compass when it comes to data, whether it’s to protect a social security number or a clandestine encounter; however, we expect the same degree of discretion from our digital services as we do from humans. The efforts we take to conceal our identities in the course of scandalous behavior must be shared by everyone who participates, especially the system designed to shield us from being discovered.
The Ashley Madison hacking is more than a case study about infidelity. It’s about the inherent suspicion that no one can be trusted, either man or machine. Our fear of being unmasked is buffered solely by our faith in a reliable and discrete service provider. We expect technology to be neutral, much like a therapist who understands our reasons for having an affair and yet refuses to judge us. When a breach happens, it’s horrific because we’ve essentially enabled a computer to demonstrate the moral compass of a human, and both have let us down.
In the end, it comes down to whether we are ever truly able to be comfortable with ourselves. We play right into the hands of those who know they hold all the leverage, because what we’ve really done is come face-to-face with our own guilt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be protected with a password named after an opera. When Frank Zappa asked What’s the ugliest part of your body? in 1968, he had the right idea when he answered his own question with, “I think it’s your mind.”