Dear Ashley Madison Hackers: Are You Happy Now? [fallout analysis]

Ashley Madison the impact team ashley madison damages

Dear Impact Team: Taking out AshleyMadison.com and trying to ruin CEO Noel Biderman’s day and IPO is one thing. But humiliating and putting at risk 31 million humans? It doesn’t make sense. Here’s reporter Tom Ewing’s analysis of the fallout, and why psychologists are now questioning whether “hackers” were responsible for it at all. [report, analysis]

aNewDomain — Somewhere in the world right now, there’s a little girl who’s playing with her favorite uncle for maybe the last time. In a few days, the religious police in her country will arrest him for the crime of homosexuality. He will be humiliated, tortured and, finally, executed either by stoning or hanging. She might even be forced, along with other family members, to watch her uncle’s execution.

Why did this happen? The uncle’s name simply turned up among some 31 million names on the Ashley Madison customer list that the so-called Impact Team hacker(s) released Aug. 20.

Whether the uncle in our story ever actually used the Ashley Madison adulters’ hookup site is of no import.

The point is that he lives in one of the 12 countries where homosexuality and adultery are punishable by death.

Is this really what the Ashley Madison hackers, or hacker, intended? On examination of the fallout here, it’s increasingly evident that the person or persons responsible for the attack might not at all be who they portray themselves to be.

A personal attack lacking a rational basis …

Trying to force a site to close down because of unsavory business practices is one thing.

Outing tens of millions of alleged adulters and homosexuals all around the world is quite another.

dear impact team the impact team ashley madison hack damageThere are 12 countries where both homosexuality and adultery are capital crimes.

No matter how much you hate the Ashley Madison site or even Avid Life Media’s sometimes-insufferable CEO Noel Biderman, the potential damage here renders this published hack inexcusable.

Rather than harming a company or a CEO you despise, you’ve ended up humiliating, degrading and potentially even risking the lives of multitudes.

Already, there are reports of Ashley Madison-related suicides and hate crimes, and the worst may be yet to come.

Happy now?

Were hackers really behind the Ashley Madison scandal or was it just one or two insiders?

ashley madison hackers dear impact team hackers The utter lack of consideration for the human toll of the Ashley Madison revenge plan, if that’s what it was, is one reason why some investigators are beginning to suspect that a traditional hacking group (ala Anonymous) isn’t behind this at all.

On the contrary, the act reeks, some psychologists say, of the kind of irrational action you’d expect to see from one or two individuals who are closely and emotionally interwined with adultery site Ashley Madison, its parent company Avid Life Media or CEO Biderman. Insiders. Employees. Likely, such experts theorize. But no one knows.

The whole thing does feel strangely personal, doesn’t it?

How else to explain the enormous scope of the carnage here? Some observers wonder how this could not be personal, and it’s easy to see why they say that.the impact team dear impact team Ashley Madison damage

Was this a personal grudge that had you so angry you couldn’t make rational decisions, hacker or hackers?

The irrationality of the act becomes exceedingly evident as soon as you scope out the fallout. Here’s my 1,000-foot view of the damage, below.

Lives may be at risk in Asia, the Middle East …

In the U.S., one common reaction to the Ashley Madison hack is that, hey, these customers were consenting adults and nothing they did was really a crime. And if they’re a celebrity, let us hear their names so that we can giggle and gloat.

That’s not true, not everywhere.

Adultery and homosexuality are criminal offenses in roughly 75 countries.

Homosexuality is a capital crime in 12 countries. In Saudi Arabia, a gay person may be executed on a first offense, either by stoning, hanging or beheading.

Death by public stoning is mandatory for a second offensethe impact team.

Reportedly, there are more than a thousand Saudi email addresses in the Impact Team’s Aug. 20 leaks, addresses and names that may or may not correlate to real customers. But will Saudi judges care?

In the U.S., adultery is on the books as a crime in 21 states, though it is rarely if ever enforced.

Adultery was a criminal offense in Korea until early this year. It is not a crime in China, but it is in the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan.

Adultery penalties vary from country to country, but in the 12 conservative, Sharia Law observing countries (listed above), adultery and homosexulity are capital offenses.

Consider the Saudis. They clearly have the ability and tech know-how to run a sophisticated, criminal investigation around the Ashley Madison hack. That’s because the U.S., among other countries, has for years been selling the Saudis billions of dollars in military and police equipment.

One self-identified gay Saudi has already fled the country as a result of the Ashley Madison hack, according to The Independent. He is reportedly seeking asylum in the U.S. for fear of homosexual persecution, a recognized provision in U.S. asylum laws.Ashley Madison impact team

It’s likely he won’t be the last asylum seeker on these grounds.

Is this what you intended, Impact Team?

Killing yourself because your name is on the Ashley Madison list sounds extreme, but …

Toronto police have reported that two people have committed suicide over the Ashley Madison revelations.

San Antonio police also have reported the Ashley Madison hack may have contributed to the suicide of a police captain, whose name was apparently found on the Ashley Madison list.

And, as we’ve reported, six class action lawsuits have been filed against Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s parent company, at this writing. Five of the lawsuits are in the U.S. (three in California, one in Missouri and one in Texas). And there is an enormous $770 million (Canadian dollars) class action filed in Canada, where Avid Life Media is based.

Our legal team expects many more cases to be filed in such states as New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Florida — as well as EU member nations like France, Gedear impact team the impact team ashley madison class action suits usrmany and the UK, which have deep digital privacy concerns. The cost of all this is going up daily.

The total economic losses related to the hacks will likely be huge. It could well rival that of an earthquake, hurricane or a man-made disaster like an oil spill.

But the real damage, as always, lies in the mundane.

impact team noel biderman dear ashley madison hackers The cost of divorces, loss of wages, juvenile treatments and medical/psychological treatments relating to the hacks will mount, too.

Death at the hands of a foreign government, or by suicide, or facing hate crime violence for sure are headline grabbers, but they lie at the top, not the bottom, of this unseemly pyramid.

And here’s the kicker.

It is now widely believed that a good chunk of the 31 million leaked customer names are either fake, or they belong to real people whose names were derived from mailing lists and not the Ashley Madison site.

The cost of such false accusations looms large, certainly, but it’s hard to calculate.

Take British Member of Parliament Michelle Thomson. Her name and email is on Ashley Madison’s list. But Thomson claims she never used the service, that the email address given for her is an old one.

ashley madison imageThomson believes her political enemies created an account to embarrass her or that simply her name came from a mailing list. How many other people whose names appear on this long list are in the same boat?

Also, many of the female names on the hackers’ list now appear to be real names attached to bots, designed to increase male customer interest and stickiness. In GizmodoAnnalee Newitz delivers some deep analysis on this.

Deaths, divorces, suicides, broken homes, hate crimes, deportations, false accusations. Is this really what you intended, Impact Team?

Is this the first fundamentalist hack? Could be. Here’s why.

Is the Impact Team the first fundamentalist hack?

Could be.

Unlike explosive revelations like those from Edward Snowden on the NSA, or Chelsea Manning re U.S.-Iraq policies, the hacker or hackers behind the Ashley Madison break-in didn’t set out to embarrass a government. The Impact Team, when it appeared that Ashley Madison execs weren’t going to respond to its demands, either set out or inadvertently managed to embarrass and humiliate people. Millions of people.

It’s as if the hacker(s) said: Just screw them all. Let them burn.

Couldn’t the Impact Team hacker(s) just have called in the Mounties?

Why didn’t the hacker(s) just call in the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and the FBI about the prostitution and human trafficking claims? The accusation that Avid Life ripped off customers by not wiping names off the site when customers requested and paid for such deletions is a real grievance that Canada’s Office of Consumer Affairs would have investigated.

But the Impact Team, whoever that is, never gave law enforcement the opportunity to investigate. There seems to have been no attempt to shield the 31 million alleged Ashley Madison customers from public scrutiny. They are the real victims here, no matter what anyone considers wrong or right, amoral, immoral or otherwise.

Above, I said the ultimate costs of the Ashley Madison affair is similar to what might result from a fairly large disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane or oil spill.

But Avid Life Media is no Google. It isn’t even a Fuhu Noel Biderman Ashley Madison Avid Life class action suit California Missouri Texas California

And it sure the hell isn’t Exxon with its multi-billion dollar market cap. With 2014 revenues exceeding $100 million last year, Avid Life is (or was) a high flying startup, but it has nowhere near the resources it would need to clean up a mess akin to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

No matter what happens in court with the class actions or future suits, it’s unlikely this firm will ever be able to fully compensate any or all of the victims for harm done.

Avid Life Media CEO Noel Biderman (pictured with models above, in better times) and other execs and investors are hurting now and will hurt more if courts find them at fault. But the major damage has already been done, and the perpetrator of that damage isn’t Avid Life. It’s the hackers — or hacker — behind the leak.

There had to be a better way to tell Biderman he is an asshole.

For aNewDomain, I’m Tom Ewing.

Further reading/viewing:

Watch a Biderman TedX talk from two years ago, below. In light of recent revelations, it’s prescient — and strangely ironic, too.


Courtesy: TedX Talks

Also, read Salon’s coverage of Amy Schumer’s April 2015 interview with Biderman, which sheds light on a number of issues sure to be of interest to judges and juries in this continuing scandal. Check that out here.

Photos and credits:

“Mask (Eyes wide shut) (7957742338)”: by Marcel Oosterwijk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands – Mask (Eyes wide shut)Uploaded by SunOfErat. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons; “Exxon Valdez Cleanup” by PH2 POCHE, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Noel Biderman montage of three pictures: aStarkReality.com, All Rights Reserved. Image of Noel Biderman: @noelbiderman Twitter account.

About the author

Tom Ewing

Based in San Francisco, Tom Ewing leads our legal coverage here at aNewDomain.net. He also is a commercial lawyer specializing in intellectual property and the founder of avancept.com. IAM Magazine has named Tom one of the world’s top 250 IP strategists each year since 2009. Email him at Tom@aNewDomain.net. He's +Tom Ewing on Google+

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