In the wake of a data breach, Ashley Madison users are struggling with the knowledge that details of their extramarital affairs could imminently go public.
Image: Derek Mead
When hackers claimed this week to have stolen a huge cache of user data from Ashley Madison, a dating site for people already in relationships—slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair"—it was hard not to wonder how the site's users felt. Was some anxious subset of the site's 37 million member base poised on the edge of their seats, sleeplessly waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be found out by their partner and for their relationship, or even their family, to crumble in the wake of their infidelity?
One place where those private fears have been aired publicly is the bluntly-titled subreddit r/adultery, a sort of support group for unrepentant philanderers. Reading r/adultery since the alleged hack has been an exercise in schadenfreude, but also a captivating peek into the private neuroses of individuals swept up in a vast corporate data leak.
"I used gift cards to purchase credits," one user wrote. "Used a throwaway email. My two pics are are kind of identifiable. How worried am I? Scale of 1 - 10, I'm a 6."
"That means she'll have to sort through nearly 37 million pics to find you," another replied. "That's actually needle-in-a-haystack odds."
A recurring theme is that of users grappling with incalculable contingencies: that the hackers really have the data, that they'll actually release it, that if they do, they'll be publicly shamed, or busted by a significant other. Others have looked at the hack with a practical eye, even detailing elaborate lies they intend to weave if they're identified.
"If for some reason I get outed, I'm going with the 'disgruntled former customer' angle," wrote one user. "Haven't really put a lot of thought into how that will actually play out, but TBH, I'm not terribly concerned it would even happen to me."
Others embraced a gallows humor.
"Off the adultery grid for a few weeks and actually having a good period in my marriage and this shit hits the fan," wrote a user with the handle Cheater54688643. "Wonderful."
Hackers revealed Tuesday that they had targeted Ashley Madison, claiming to have extracted the company's user databases and financial records. The hackers said that unless the company takes down Ashley Madison and Established Men, a site that claims to connect "Young, Beautiful Women with Rich, Successful Men," they would release the entire store of user data, including private profiles, credit card transactions, real names and addresses of users.
"We're not denying this happened," Noel Biderman, the chief executive of ALM, the Toronto-based firm that owns Ashley Madison and a number of other dating sites, told Brian Krebs. "Like us or not, this is still a criminal act."
Cheating, it should be noted, is a nuanced issue. In private messages, a redditor who asked not to be identified even by her throwaway username described how her marriage had slowly eroded. She bought books on communication, she said, but her husband wouldn't read them or attend therapy. Then, on a business trip, she had a one night stand. Soon afterward, she found r/adultery and signed up for Ashley Madison.
"I put a few pics up of just my body," she wrote. "Within a day or two I had a hundred messages. It felt pretty great to be wanted and it got almost addictive."
At first she only exchanged messages on the site, but she eventually met with a man in real life, then another, for liaisons that she says were a welcome release, both sexually and emotionally.
She initially panicked when she heard about the hack, but mentally tallied the information she'd put online and came to the conclusion that she probably hadn't uploaded anything that could identify her. (Women on Ashley Madison weren't required to enter credit information to send messages.) She worried briefly about the men she had met on the site, but decided there was no point in agonizing over the condition of their marriages.
"My therapist told me she thinks I want to get caught because it would make ending my marriage easier," she said, thoughtfully. "She may be right."
Yesterday, the news site Fusion ran a snarky roundup of r/adultery users' reactions to the Ashley Madison hack. Inevitably, it was posted to r/adultery, with the title "We are famous."
"He left my idea out," wrote user Throw-away-4-days, in response to the Fusion article. "I plan on taking responsibility for my choices and actions if I get busted. No other option. Time to pay the piper."