It’s been a victorious few weeks for those in the public shaming biz. Ever since extramarital affairs hookup site AshleyMadison.com was breached by hackers, we’ve seen an outpouring of articles, news feeds, and blogs about how many people had signed up on the site (numbers range anywhere from 32 to 40 million) and how many prominent or well-known folks are among those numbers. Government employees, some with sensitive congressional jobs, have been ID’d. And reality TV star Josh Duggar, upon being outed, has hung his head in shame for being, in his words, “the biggest hypocrite ever.”
We’re good with this. Right? They were cheaters, after all. Lowest of the low. They violated marital vows and the trust of those to whom they’d supposedly commited unwavering fidelity. Good thing well-meaning hackers were able to bust into the site and expose those loathesome creatures so that the rest of us pillars of moral rectitude can point fingers of shame. And having the world connected on the net makes it so easy. It’s virtual stocks and pillories to make certain those cheaters are properly called out. If only we could spit on them and throw rotten vegetables in their faces for good measure.
To be clear, I don’t condone cheating. Committing to fidelity is just that – a commitment. A vow that you’re going to be loyal to one person and not go running around having sex on the sly with lots of others (or even one other). If you make the promise of fidelity to someone, you darn well ought to keep it. But here’s where I struggle with the Ashley Madison story. Breaking your commitment is a bad thing. It’s painful, it’s wrong, and you shouldn’t do it. But it’s not illegal. Hacking into a computer site and stealing protected data is. Yet for all the stories I’ve read about this, the focus is almost exclusively on the people registered on the site and not at all on the hackers who exposed them.
When hackers breached the Target Corp’s site back in 2013 and obtained the data from some 40 million credit cards, people were in an uproar. Their personal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers, were compromised. Target ended up paying out $10 million to settle a class action lawsuit by people upset over the data breach. The same is true in the Ashley Madison situation. But rather than hearing public outcry over the hackers who illegally broke into the site and compromised subscribers’ data – or outcry over Ashley Madison not keeping their damn data more secure! – the condemnation has been over the subscribers themselves. They’re the ones receiving the criticism, the shaming, the virtual vegetables in the face. How we’ve been able to out these people seems not to matter, the focus is solely on what they’ve done. It’s a classic example of the ends justifying the means.
I have to admit, I find this unsettling. The hackers who went after Ashley Madison weren’t doing it to obtain financial data, as in the Target breach, but rather solely because they wanted to expose activity over which they objected. If a bunch of people broke into a bookstore, stole every last book of erotic romance they could find, and then built a public bonfire to burn away those books, would we be cool with that? After all, the activity would have eroded something that some people don’t like. For me, this isn’t OK. We all don’t like everything. I’m not a fan of hunting, but it’s not my place to bust into the homes of hunters and steal their rifles because I don’t like what they do with them. I equate this example with the cheaters. You don’t have to like what they do, but stealing their personal information and deciding to be judge and jury of their activity is not only illegal, it’s wrong.
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