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Ashley Madison Settles Complaint with FTC

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

January 3, 2017

Selective enjoyment of privacy rights and dispensing digital security based on your politics, or worse, your personal predilections (regardless of what they may be), is a slippery slope. In the aftermath of the 2015 Ashley Madison hack, many dismissed the incident as unimportant because they thought the site to be unethical, and its users not deserving of privacy nor sympathy.

Comments like, “…cheating dirtbags…deserve no such discretion” or as one commenter suggested, “Anyone who signed up for this site deserves everything they have coming to them,” choked the internet. While it might be personally gratifying to look down your nose at the users and disparage the site, do so at your peril.

I wonder if any of these commenters were Democratic Party proponents. If so, would they be singing a different tune about their candidate being hacked? What would they say if Republicans  said that they deserved to be hacked because it would be payback for Clinton’s email abuses?

What’s worse, governments around the world are using the same rationale and the same subjective assessments in planning prosecution of their onerous, repressive, anti-privacy campaigns. These government law enforcement agencies trample privacy rights by wrapping themselves in their respective flags. Substitute sanctimony and self-righteousness (as in the Ashley Madison instance) for national security and the consequence is the same – personal privacy is diminished.

More than the stench of smugness, a precedent is set for anyone in the future to ignore privacy as long as they can concoct what they feel is a justifiable reason. Watch out! Next time you may be the target of a “holier-than-thou” digital devotee. In pursuing the complaint, the FTC, in conjunction with 13 state attorney generals and the Canadian government, emphasized that everyone enjoys the right to privacy.

There is added fallout from the Ashley Madison fiasco that surpasses the obvious embarrassment (and worse) caused to the users of the site. Yes, jobs were lost and marriages were torn apart. Victims of the breach have an increased risk of identity theft, fraud, and damage to their reputations.

They are also easier prey for blackmailers and extortionists, as well as having their credit profiles permanently marred. There were also suicides committed by users outed by the breach. For them, it went far beyond being just emotionally distressing and humiliating.

Added to this were the psychological repercussions that rippled across the internet. Many people were spooked to the point that they became wary of even using legitimate, more savory sites, for common searches like house or job hunting.

The FTC investigation was also significant for other reasons, including bots. It is the first such complaint by the FTC that involved bots designed to actively deceive consumers. The future may be one where we can no longer tell real humans from bots programmed to hoodwink us. In this regard, software design will now be under scrutiny, not just the perpetrator of fraudulent, flattering bots that dupe users into revealing sensitive personal information.

Also important is the level of collaboration that resulted in the favorable outcome for consumers. When state attorney generals and a foreign government (Canada) join forces, as they did here, it bodes well for privacy protection in the future. However, we shouldn’t leave it up to the government to sort things out. We, the consumers and users, play a role as well.

We must employ common sense when presented with requests (from automated bots) that are flattering to the point of being almost absurd. If something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

Vigilance is the watchword, because even if we can count on the government to rectify the wrongs committed, by then it will likely be too late. The damage will have been done. As a result, relationships, reputations, and even lives may be lost. This is not an innocent game or prank. It has real-life implications, and we have to be up to the challenge.

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