TORONTO – Cheating spouses who fear their secret online liaisons could be revealed in the Ashley Madison data breach faced a tough lesson this week about flirting with danger on the Internet.
But experts say getting people to change their wicked ways won’t necessarily be as simple as threatening to divulge past indiscretions.
Whether it’s a steamy conversation on Facebook with a high-school flame or a random encounter at the bar, adultery is hardly a new phenomenon.
“People have been having extramarital affairs for long before the Internet facilitated those liaisons,” said Matthew Johnson, a relationship specialist in human ecology at the University of Alberta.
“Infidelity is not going to stop because people are all of the sudden scared their personal information is going to leak on a website.”
Still, questions about the fallout of the breach linger as Toronto-based website AshleyMadison.com reels from a cyberattack where hackers stole confidential details about its cheating customers and threatened to post them online.
A small amount of that information was briefly released by hackers before Ashley Madison executives had it pulled off search engines using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the company said.
This certainly isn’t the first time data has been stolen in recent years.
Government websites have temporarily shut down to prevent hackers from stealing information, while companies like Sony and Target Corp. have taken major financial hits from massive customer and employee data breaches.
What makes the security breach at Ashley Madison different is that it literally hits home for many people and could face irreversible consequences in their marriages or long-term relationships.
Prof. David Skillicorn, who specializes in computers and hacking at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the breach also reveals the extent to which people are willing to take risks and reveal intimate details online without thinking about the repercussions.
For years, Ashley Madison boasted to its 37 million international members that its security measures were practically impenetrable, which Skillicorn suggests was never a realistic claim.
“If you’re dealing with dynamite content, it’s a bit disingenuous not to fess up and say: ‘You better assume that everything you put on here will eventually leak,”‘ he said.
“That’s the reality of the world at the moment.”
Warning signs about faulty security at “discreet” websites became glaringly apparent when Adult Friend Finder, a website for swingers and hookups, was breached in May. Hackers stole personal customer data for 3.5 million users and posted it on underground websites.
“This didn’t seem to raise flags with those people, so I think that’s a commentary on how much the culture has still not taken on board the issues of Internet security,” Skillicorn said.
One question that remains is how Ashley Madison’s security breach could impact the future of its business.
Earlier this year, the company said it was hoping to make a second attempt at an initial public offering in London, valued at up to $200 million. If successful, the move would have helped the company acquire capital to build a stronger business, particularly in Asia where it saw booming customer growth.
Nothing was certain about that IPO before the hack, especially since the company failed to launch a similar move in Canada five years ago, but chances are investors won’t be willing to risk their money on a company in the midst of a crisis.
Ashley Madison, which is owned by Avid Life Media Inc., may now have to settle for much smaller ambitions as its business faces a variety of potential troubles, including members cancelling their accounts and the possibility of lawsuits from angry customers if any of their information is leaked.