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Life is Short. Have an Affair?

Hillary Yaffe

Ashley MadisonData permanence and the security of information in today's world is something that we are all grappling with. With the advancement of technology and the evolution of human interaction, there has been a boom of customer-centric businesses with a digital twist. The way we shop, make reservations, consume news, and date has been revolutionized even over the past decade. The recent hacking of Ashley Madison has resulted in a significant level of attention. What is perhaps most interesting and disturbing is the public's focus on the behavior of the site's members rather than on the cybersecurity issue associated with the "affair-enabling" website and the company's reaction.

As we live in a Page Six society this isn't so shocking, but here's why it should be. How many times have we all entered our name, address, company, phone number, date of birth, etc. as a way to sign up for a mobile application or a website? Plenty. We all regularly share information voluntarily. Regardless of one's personal perspective on adultery, the fact is that Ashley Madison didn't cause people to become cheaters; it merely provided them an efficient vehicle to act on their impulses. Husbands and wives have been having affairs since the institution of marriage was formalized and just as sites like Tinder, Match and OkCupid have digitalized dating, Ashley Madison has digitalized cheating. But what everyone should be focusing on instead of what big names have been caught in the scandal, is the security breach that occurred and we should be viewing the site's members as the victims that they are.

To consider the company's actions negligent is generous. When one considers the time gap between the Impact Team communicating their intentions and the leaks themselves, there was plenty of time for crisis preparedness, yet in watching the news cycle, it is apparent that there was no scenario planning and that management adopted a "wait and see" approach. Brief timeline of events:

  • July 12 - Impact Team communicates their "hactivist" intentions and terms to ALM Media via employee computers.
  • July 19 - Impact Team posts the same message on Pastebin and samples some of the content they have access to, leaks the hack to Brian Krebs who reported on it.
  • July 20 - ALM makes a brief statement announcing the hack and the fact that they are working with the authorities.
  • July 22 - Impact Team releases the personal details of two members as the first official data leak.
  • August 18 - Impact Team releases first data trove on the dark web; ALM releases a statement confirming its commitment to pursuing the criminals but keeps the site up and running.
  • August 20 - Impact Team releases the second data trove onto the web which contains internal documents and emails from ALM in additional to the personal information of the Ashley Madison members.

After almost complete radio-silence from the company, Noel Biderman, CEO of Avid Life Media (Ashley Madison's parent company) announced last Friday, August 28, that he is stepping down as its best for the company. While technically he's accountable because he's the highest ranking officer at ALM, this was a technical problem at a subsidiary company, and it begs the questions of who is directly responsible and why weren't they "forced out" as well. The absence of communication since the leak minus a couple of orchestrated evergreen comments leads one to believe that what we are all hearing is the sound of divorce attorneys clinking glasses as they drum up a class action lawsuit.

So what are the ramifications for the victims/members? They have been exposed in the press, have been extorted and many have had their lives turned upside down. Fast Company recently posted a story discussing whether or not being exposed through this hack will have workplace repercussions. Say, what? While every workplace environment is different, one principle that they all should maintain is a separation between one's personal and professional lives. Most of us have some skeletons in our closets and we all certainly have personal information that we'd like to remain private and secure. Companies should not be able to dictate what people do in the privacy of their own homes (or in another's).  Put simply, workplace performance should be the only indicator of one's place within an organization unless due to the nature of the job one's private life ends up becoming publicly at odds with the primary purpose of one's profession.

Politicians, celebrities, business tycoons have been ousted for their affairs over the years and while there is an immediate news cycle, overtime people are generally forgiven (e.g. JFK, Bill Clinton, Eric Schmidt, Elliot Spitzer, etc.) unless the act itself was criminal and loathsome (Roman Polanski, DSK, and most recently Bill Cosby). In the hyper connected world we live in, our digital and social profiles significantly impact others' impressions of us as people. There is almost a disconnect between us as humans and our digital presence, further emphasizing how much we need to be careful about how we conduct ourselves on and offline. Internet shaming and cyber-bullying have become real forces to be reckoned with and the propensity for something to "go viral" is a reality to be accounted for.

Any lessons here? As spokespeople, PR professionals are uniquely positioned as brand advocates. While an extra-marital affair might not impact a person's career prospect in financial communications, per se, should that same person represent the American Family Association, their job is likely on the line due to the inherent hypocrisy. This recent data breach should serve as a reminder to consider the repercussions of the actions we take in our personal lives and on social media as flacks and as people. None of us want to end up like Justine Sacco. But in the event that something happens, we want to be prepared and be sure to have a crisis communications plan in place.

P.S. Reuters reported on August 31 that more than 80,000 women have signed up for Ashley Madison since the hack - interesting (playing the favorable odds, perhaps?). Though ALM will likely spend a ton in legal fees (and future settlements) over the coming years, like it or not, the demand for their service lives on.  End of Story

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