You’re next: Ashley Madison, outing and little lists

Over on The Register, there’s an interesting article about the Ashley Madison hack, and a fair number of interesting comments.

There are also some from people who, one assumes, must be entirely pure of heart and mind. Already, there are numerous reports of people worried about what may happen to them as a result of their email address appearing on the list. The Reg article tells of a radio station in Australia who revealed to a woman live on air that her husband was “on the list.” Such jolly japes! Wired reports on a gay man who now fears for his life, as he lives in Saudi Arabia, and used the site to meet people. And there will be many others whose lives are damaged.

In some cases, that will happen because of wrong information – because the site didn’t verify addresses, and you could enter anyone’s, if you just wanted to get in and look around. Even if an address is legitimate, that doesn’t necessarily prove anything – someone may have signed up years ago. They may have been having problems, now resolved, in a relationship. They may have had any number of different reasons – and you, dear reader, don’t know. All that is made worse by the way in which the site used to charge people to delete their accounts.

Yet still people – even some apparently intelligent readers of the Register article – trot out rubbish saying that it’s not the hack that’s ruining lives. It’s the fact that people were on the site in the first place.

Let’s remind those people again: you don’t know a damn thing about the people behind the email addresses. You can’t judge them. And you can’t site there and loftily blame them for not living up to your own ‘higher’ moral standards.

And if you do, in my view, you’re actually on pretty much the same level as someone who would say of a person outed against their will, “It’s not the outing that did the damage. He shouldn’t have been gay in the first place.”

You. Don’t. Know. Them.

The hackers say they wanted to make a point about the way the site was run. But there are surely better ways of doing that than by deliberately releasing information that they must have known – anyone would have known – could have the potential to wreak havoc in millions of lives. And it’s no good to say “we just wanted to make a point, if anyone got hurt, it’s their fault.”

And you know what? I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the UK, we have a government that’s dead set on forcing internet censorship on its citizens. And it’s doing that by making people choose – for now – whether or not they want their connection filtered ‘for pornography.’

That means that internet providers will have lists – lists of which of their customers want an unfiltered internet. And, just as celebrity phone numbers and other information has a tendency to leak from mobile phone companies, so these lists will, almost inevitably leak as well.

When they do, just like it won’t matter to most people why someone is on the Ashley Madison list, it won’t matter whether you chose an unfiltered internet connection as a principled stand against censorship, or because you love looking at dirty photos. You’ll be someone on the “Porn list.”

You’ll be – as far as your employer is concerned, or the person you’re fighting for custody of your children, or the people who want to know if they can trust you as a babysitter, or the members of your church – a pervert. On. The. List.

This is what happens when people make lists, especially those to do with other people’s private lives.

Once again, of course there’ll be people sticking up for the hackers or sleazy tabloid reporters who leaked it. They’ll be saying the problem isn’t that the list was leaked, it’s that you made the wrong decision in the first place. If only you’d conformed to their view of what was moral, then people wouldn’t be judging you.

I have a big problem with that, frankly. Yes, sites like Ashley Madison should take privacy very seriously. But when they fail, that doesn’t mean that we have a right to judge people whose names or email addresses appear on a list.

Your private life is up to you, and neither the state nor some busybody on the internet has any right to know what goes on between consenting adults, still less to take that information and use it for titillation or entertainment.

Few of us are really as pure as we might like to think, and someone, somewhere, probably has us on a list. If you’re an internet user in the UK, David Cameron is doing his very best to make sure that if you’re not a list now, you will be before too long.

So, don’t pass the buck, giving hackers and companies an easy ride, blaming people who appear on a list that should never have been leaked in the first place.

One day, it could be a different list. And it could be you. Whose fault will that be?

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