Likely Fallout from Ashley Madison Breach

The Pentagon gets hacked, Jeeps get hacked, government-employee files get hacked…ho-hum…snore. But, when  Ashley Madison gets hacked, it’s whoa, what’s going on here? Stop the presses, Katy bar the door? Such is the predicament which has energized the Internet and is bound to cause consternation to millions of users and their families- much to the benefit, if not delight of a cadre of divorce lawyers already struggling under the strain of barrages of phone calls. In this day and age, massive data breaches have become so routine as to become background noise. In the past year, half of American adults had their personal information exposed as a result of hacks according to informed sources. And while every hack produces anguished headlines and hand-wringing, the impact of the data breaches on average people is small.

Hackers may gain access to your email address, or your phone number, or an encrypted password. But any financial losses are typically absorbed by your bank. We glance at the headlines, change our passwords, and await the next minor inconvenience. This hack affects a very sensitive part of adult’s lives and the ripple effect is bound to be profound as it will bring together two potent, formidable forces- angry lovers and lawyers. Given that as many as 40 million people may be affected by the hack, divorce lawyers could be busy for years. Just hours after the breach, swamped law firms, like Manhattan- based Yaniv; Associates spooled up their recordings with, “The attorneys are unavailable because there are so many people calling right now. You’ll have to call back later.”

The consequences for Ashley Madison are likely to be catastrophic. A CEO who routinely bragged about the company’s privacy and security now seems likely to face a barrage of lawsuits from members who have found their information exposed. And a site that depends on privacy and security to earn members’ trust may find it impossible to win it back.

The hacker group claiming responsibility, called the Impact Team, apparently has a moral vendetta against the site for the promiscuous promoting of lascivious liaisons and said they weren’t worthy of “discretion”, promising to publish information on the “cheating dirtbags” who use Ashley Madison. The company pushed back saying,

“This event is not an act of hactivism, it is a criminal act. It is an illegal action (against)… freethinking people who choose to engage in lawful online activities,” according to a company spokesperson. “The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

There will be much financial fallout from the hack as culpability is assessed and breach of confidentiality due to poor security on the company’s part is explored. But the worst impact will be of the personal variety. Simply, cheating upends people’s lives and can also lead to professional ruin. Certain employers will react negatively to the knowledge that their employees were using the site and it could lead to dismissals- discreetly- to be sure. Government employees and public figures are also vulnerable and likely targets for blackmail. Consider the military man or woman who would face a court-martial and possible imprisonment for philandering. Penalties could include discharge (dishonorable) and loss of pension.

And the pain won’t end there — certain employers will react negatively to the knowledge that their employees were used the site, and people could lose their jobs as a result. Government employees who could become subject to blackmail; schoolteachers in more conservative districts; elected officials; CEOs — all of these could face professional consequences, along with anyone else who has a morals clause in their employment contract. And the results could follow them — expect this data to become included as a part of pre-employment background checks for years to come.

So the genie is out of the bottle and many suspicious spouse’s interests will be aroused. Concurring, one lawyer, Susan Moss of New York firm Chemtob Moss; Forman opined, “With this release of data every curious spouse in America is going to check to see if their partner is on this list. This will lead to an influx of more divorces- or, at the very least, some very difficult conversations.” Lawyers may not be alone in sharing in the bounty of business emanating from the fallout. Therapists, too, are likely to see an uptick in interest in their services as spouses sort out their options and seek remedies to patch-up broken relationships.

The repercussions from this event are far-reaching to be sure and likely to be protracted. For all we know, the “right to be forgotten” ruling of the ECJ might abandon borders and take on a new meaning as a crowd of potential takedowns looms in the future if this scenario plays out to an ugly end. Moral: be careful when using the Internet, you never know who may be watching …or hacking.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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