It has been impossible to avoid the constant news stories surrounding the recent hack of the Ashley Madison website that led to the release of the personal information of millions of its users. For the uninitiated, Ashley Madison is an adultery website (tagline “”Life is Short. Have an Affair”) that claims almost 40 million members. The site promises anonymity and discretion to its members. However, this promised anonymity and discretion were completely compromised when a hacker, or group of hackers, known as the Impact Team exposed the email addresses, names, addresses, credit card numbers and other sensitive personal information for millions of the site’s users.
The initial reaction seems to have been a mix of fascination and amusement over some of the high profile men that have been exposed by the site. Progressives especially seem to have relished the exposure of Josh Duggar’s account. The Duggars, vociferous champions of traditional values and potent anti-gay forces have become the face of moral hypocrisy after allegations of sexual child abuse, and now, infidelity, have blown up right in their own house. For many, the fact that the people exposed by the site (overwhelmingly men though a small number of women seem to use the site as well) are engaged in adultery or actively seeking affairs is enough to conclude that these people deserve to be exposed and any embarrassment, humiliation or damage to their families is their just comeuppance.
However, privacy advocates, and especially the LGBT community, should be very concerned about this hack and should be loudly condemning it. According to the hackers, their choice of target was based partly because the site was encouraging immoral behavior. That statement alone should give any member of the LGBT community that uses social dating or sex sites pause for concern. Immoral behavior is exactly the thing that LGBT members have been accused of engaging in by anti-gay forces and has been the rationale for many anti-gay actions including denial of equal rights. It is not hard to see how a hacker who feels that gay dating or sex sites encourage “immoral behavior” would feel justified and indeed expect accolades for exposing the intimate details of users of such sites. As we all know, such exposure for LGBT members would be catastrophic. Beyond issues of privacy and embarrassment, there is a very real risk of harassment, potential physical harm, loss of employment and even loss of family and friends. For many gay people that cannot be out in their communities these type of sites and apps may be the only lifeline to a gay community beyond their town. The privacy afforded by these sites is crucial for the open interactions that closeted gay and lesbians crave and need and cannot get anywhere else.
These concerns are not just merely theoretical, the Ashley Madison hack itself is having potentially dangerous repercussions for the gay community and is an example of the dangers of such hacks. The Independent and Sky News have both reported that the Ashley Madison hack has put gay lives at risk around the world. Users of Ashley Madison’s “Down Low” site, which allows members to seek other men anonymously, are part of the data dump which includes personal email addresses. This includes the personal information of users that live in countries where homosexuality is illegal and even punishable by death. There is even anecdotal evidence that a gay Saudi national who feared being stoned to death as a result of the hack has fled Saudi Arabia. As more details of the leak come to light, it is likely that even more gay or bisexual men will be exposed and potentially face great risk as a result.
Here at LGBT Tech we will continue to educate legislators and companies on the specific privacy issues relating to the LGBT community and continue to work to strengthen tech privacy and security measures for the LGBT community. The Ashley Madison hack is a sobering example of the heightened need for security and privacy when it comes to tech and the LGBT community.