It is not the first time personal data has been hacked but, from FBI investigations to exposed spouses, the online publication of the details of millions of users of the Ashley Madison website has created a global fallout of epic proportions.
“Life is short. Have an affair,” goes the slogan of the Canada-based dating website aimed exclusively at married couples. And millions around the world took them up on their offer.
Unfortunately, though, the website’s security measures weren’t as impregnable as they claimed to be and on Monday a hacking group calling itself the Impact Team published the email addresses of 32 million Ashley Madison members online.
Internet forums were immediately abuzz with users claiming to have found evidence that their significant others were on the site. Twitter went into meltdown with “hack” trending in fourth place.
Most comments expressed horror that people’s identities were exposed and many were astonished that some had apparently used their work emails to sign up to the site.
Meanwhile, various websites began indexing the data, dumped on the so-called dark web which is only accessible using a specialised browser, so it could be easily searched by those worried their partners or they themselves could be on it.
‘This will wreck my marriage’
“Find yourself in here?" said the hackers in a statement alongside the data dump.
"It was [Avid Life Media] that failed you and lied to you. Prosecute them and claim damages. Then move on with your life. Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you'll get over it."
But for some of those caught up in the leak, getting over it is unlikely to come easy.
“This will wreck my marriage,” one man told the US website Fusion, which contacted 24 people who had had their details leaked.
“I don’t think these people understand what they have done,” said another.
Forums such as Reddit - the user-powered news and discussion site - carried stories of anguished husbands and wives confronting their partners after finding their data among the massive dump of information.
One woman from Australia found out in another way when a radio show asked listeners to phone in if they wanted their spouse's details run through the database.
The woman called saying she was suspicious because her husband had been acting strangely since the news of the leak broke. The hosts plugged his details into a website and said they found a match.
"Are you serious? Are you freaking kidding me?" the woman asked, her voice shaking. "These websites are disgusting." She then hung up.
But for others, the consequences of the data leak could reverberate far beyond their marriages.
The French leak monitoring firm CybelAngel said it counted 1,200 email addresses in the data dump with the .sa suffix, suggesting users were connected to Saudi Arabia, where adultery is punishable by death.
Other email addresses have been linked to US government officials and military personnel, presenting significant security risks.
"It's easy to imagine that some people might be vulnerable to blackmail, if they don't want details of their membership or sexual proclivities to become public," independent security researcher Graham Cluley said in a blog post.
Little surprise then that the FBI is getting involved, announcing Wednesday it was launching an investigation into the hacking.
Other public figures whose email addresses have allegedly appeared in the list include a Scottish lawmaker and an Israeli Arab politician, both of whom have denied being members of the site.
In the US, television personality and former Family Research Council director Josh Duggar admitted to cheating on his wife after his email address also appeared amongst the hacked data.
Duggar, 27, apologised for being "the biggest hypocrite ever" in a statement posted on his family's website.
But Cluley noted that just because a certain person’s email addressed appears in the list, does not mean it is genuine.
It "means nothing", he said, because the site "never bothered to verify the email addresses given to it by users.
Indeed, many of the email addresses are obviously fake, firstname.lastname@example.org being a prime example.
Meanwhile, for Avid Life Media, questions remained about whether more data will be released and how its business can go on.
“It’s a pretty severe blow,” said a banker familiar with the company, who was not authorised to speak publicly about the topic.
“If any business needed privacy, it would be them. Now they’ve lost it. ”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2015-08-20