For people in developed countries whose deepest secret revolved around their Ashley Madison account, the consequences of exposure might seem serious enough: damaged or destroyed marriages, or the loss of a security clearance.
But for a group of gay men dispersed across much more conservative countries, the stakes are far higher.
And with a vast data dump of details on 32 million users of the site last week, their secrets are an open book for any police official with an Internet connection.
Of the potential harms that came from the existence of the site in the first place, and from the forced exposure of its users, it seems to be by far the most serious.
Globally, about 300,000 men set up Ashley Madison accounts to look for sex with other men. Geospatial data shows that 1,296 of them were logged on in countries, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that retain severe punishment for sexual contact between men: prison, whipping, death. (In some cases, they listed addresses in Western countries, but the data shows their real location.)
In August, a Reddit contributor who said he was a gay man in Saudi Arabia posted a compelling but unverifiable account of his attempt to flee the country after hackers published the Ashley Madison data.
“A bunch of people are accusing me of lying because ‘AM is only for married people.’
“AM is actually about “discreet hookups,” and hence its main appeal is to married people, since premarital sex isn’t stigmatized in the West. But it also appeals to gays from regressive cultures,” he wrote.
Around the world, 76 countries still criminalize same-sex activity. Five have significant numbers of men-seeking men Ashley Madison users: India, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
While India has an active gay rights movement, the country’s Supreme Court recently upheld a British law dating from 1860 criminalizing sexual acts between men. Prosecutions, though not that common given India’s vast size, do continue.
The raw Ashley Madison data has very detailed geographic information about where users were, down to a block or household level.