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Why We Should Sympathize With the Exposed Ashley Madison Users

08/20/2015 08:37 EDT | Updated 08/20/2016 05:59 EDT
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As the news cycle continues to churn out a lively discussion among people infuriated by the millions targeted in the Ashley Madison privacy breach, many commenters seem to call for the accountability of its users. "About time a group that really cares about 'family values' took decisive action," said one Huff Post commenter, "The world has gone mad. Does marriage mean anything anymore?" pleaded another.

It's dizzying scrolling through the headlines that have monopolized the web pages of most major media in the last 48 hours, capitalizing on the alleged 37 million people who have been exposed. Searchable databases from multiple sources continue to surface, enabling anyone with a hint of insecurity -- or curiosity -- to search to see if their friends, family, colleagues or spouses have been entangled in perhaps the grandest public shaming stunt in recent history.

What I find more shocking than the instability of the websites security infrastructure is the fact that in the end users are the ones taking a lot of the heat. Let's be clear -- no one who signed up for Ashley Madison has committed a crime or participated in illegal activity. Whether you believe in the sanctity of marriage and practice monogamy, or you're happy to toss your keys into a bowl at parties and let the good times roll, no one has the right to splash your private life across the web.

Shouldn't we be channelling our outrage towards a group of hackers for taking it upon themselves to determine what's immoral and what's appropriate conduct on the Internet? Using cyber-terrorism as a tool to shame people who may not navigate by the same moral compass as you is not only the ultimate breach in privacy; it's an attack on net neutrality. Imposing fear on people for how they behave online is just as repressive as restricting certain behaviours and content in the first place.

Many reports have claimed that the $19 fee Ashley Madison charges to delete a user's account did not permanently erase the files, leaving them vulnerable to a potential breach. What if a person created the account before entering a relationship or marriage, or did so out of curiosity? What if they had their partners blessing? Do they deserve the same amount of public scrutiny? Or should the threshold in which we punish these people be subjective?

Last year, Jennifer Lawrence and other high-profile celebrities had their iCloud accounts hacked, exposing personal photos and files that spread through the search engines like wildfire. The general public seemed to rally behind these people and the importance of cyber security. How is the Ashley Madison incident any different?

The story has began to twist and morph further, with public servants coming under fire for using their professional email addresses to manage their Ashley Madison accounts. First responders, military, government figures -- even reality TV personalities -- have been tied to the website. While discretion should be practiced by both the user and the service to ensure privacy, do these folks deserve to be dragged through the mud as well? Personally, I'm not going to judge the people keeping our streets safe or maintaining national security for privately seeking out a tryst or two. Because it's none of my damn business.

Maybe this massive breach in security will inspire a more honest discussion about the role of marriage and monogamy in the 21st century? Or, maybe what this has really taught us is to use an alias. Either way, net neutrality is something we all need to be fighting to preserve.

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