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Ashley Madison and the Value of Data: Suicides, Divorces, and Broken Homes

In an August 18 article about the pervasiveness of algorithms and their use by governments and companies to sell you things and protect you from harm, Frank Pasquale a law professor at the University of Maryland argues that “cyberspace is no longer an escape from the ‘real world’. It is now a force governing it.” The release of data from the Ashley Madison hack, which contains over 35 million email addresses, 33 million accounts with names and addresses, and every credit card transaction from the last seven years, suggests that Pasquale is spot on.

Unfortunately, the initial general response to the breach was more about who had the better joke than about what the real consequences of this release truly means.

To be sure, lives will be ruined. A website has already been created that enables you to search for email addresses in the released content. Imagine discovering your less than faithful partner. Worse, picture your neighbor, or your mom, or your son telling you they found your spouse’s name. Of course, you could argue that perhaps they should be outed. If you cheated, or attempted to cheat on your wife or husband, you deserve to get caught. Yeah probably so. But, something feels weird about this breach. The message of this release is not about stealing an identity or credit card number. It’s about creating pain.

This is unique in the history of data breaches.

Frequently, I argue that most of us don’t pay enough attention to the data we surrender in order to use a service or product. Ashley Madison proves this out. Millions of men and women signed up for a service so they could cheat. In doing so, they provided detailed information about who they are. My guess is they never considered what would happen if that data became public. It’s alleged that around 15,000 of the email addresses associated with this hack end in a .mil or .gov. Academics, doctors, judges, politicians, celebrities and others are assuredly in this data as well. The effects of this breach could be violent and extreme. Who will kill themselves from embarrassment or guilt? Will a cheated upon spouse take a gun to her partner? What jobs will be lost? Who’ll be forced to resign?

We’re about to find out.

As I write this, the number of people admitting on Twitter to Ashely Madison membership has increased twenty times. Many of them with excuses. I suppose they feel it’s better to cop to the infidelity rather than be discovered neck deep in it. In a 2014 study, Experian, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, discovered that other than experiencing stress, most consumers do nothing after they’ve been notified of a data breach. Yeah. Not this time.

The results of this hack have the potential to be monumental and it further emphasizes the cliché that privacy is dead. The Internet, once hailed as a beacon of anonymity, has turned into a culture of gotcha. If there ever was a wakeup call about the value and sensitivity of your data, it is this breach. Let it serve as a warning. Your data is valuable and worth more than just money.

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