As the Ashley Madison fallout continues, are its members being misunderstood?
Most adultery site users probably never thought they would have to explain themselves. But events over the summer have got them worried.
North American site Ashley Madison was breached in July by a group of hackers, the Impact Team, who accessed the accounts and payment details of its 37 million users worldwide. The members face the possibility of being blackmailed, possible public exposure and ruin.
Not only has the company confirmed it has Danish users, but a Scandinavian site launched in 2010, Victoria Milan, has 235,000 Danish users – close to 4 percent of the population.
Danish adultery site members face the very real possibility of being exposed. But do they really have that much to hide?
No such thing as 100 percent
Assuring its members that their details were secure has always been an important component of the adultery site business. Barely a week went by without Ashley Madison bragging about its Fort Knox-style security, while Victoria Milan claims to be 100 percent anonymous and discreet.
But according to Lorena Ronquillo from the Theoretical Computer Science department of the IT University of Copenhagen, many of their past claims are false – for example the one by Ashley Madison that it can entirely delete a profile at a cost of 130 kroner.
“A full delete is impossible,” she told the Weekly Post. “There is always a trace, even when they delete everything. And what is more, there was no way users could prove their data was deleted.”
Besides, Ronquillo asserts that there is no such thing as 100 percent security when humans are involved.
“You can have the most secure systems in the world, but they are managed by people, so there is always the risk of a human error, whether it is done unwillingly or willingly,” she contended.
Fake accounts won’t help
And it’s much harder to hide behind fake accounts than people might think, asserts Ronquillo, who claims they can nearly always be traced. “It is harder, but it’s possible,” she said.
The Weekly Post spoke to one individual who has experience of hacking, and he was able to explain the process involved in tracking down an account holder.
“If a hacker knows your location, but does not know anything about you, he can hack your wifi and pick up packages of the data you’re sending online, hijack your internet usage, and even inject malware that may compromise your device even further.
“So if you don’t really want to get caught, you have to go extreme: buy a burner phone with cash, find a laptop for sale on DBA using a public computer (library, net cafe etc), buy it with cash, always have it off anywhere near your home or other places you are associated with, only use public networks such as cafés, wear a hat so you can’t be identified on security cameras, and route your network through proxies on every continent (twice).”
Washing their hands
One of Ashley Madison’s mistakes, contends Ronquillo, was that it was storing more information than it needed to.
“Data is a really valuable asset and should be secured in the best way possible, otherwise hacks like this can happen,” she said.
“Besides, the slogan about them being 100 percent anonymous was like a provocation for hackers. It’s interesting to note that Victoria Milan now states on its site: ‘We don’t permit you to provide any personal or identifying information’. It is sort of like they are washing their hands of the matter and transferring the responsibility to the user.”
Bombed by male users
Given the precarious nature of joining a site, most people would imagine that there would be fewer people using the sites. But the contrary is true.
To test the theory, our investigation listed a female profile on two sites with no photo to see how many people would make contact.
On craigslist.dk, in less than 48 hours the inbox received 30 replies. On Victoria Milan, 15 messages were received in only five hours.
The response confirms the figures released by the sites that most of the users are men. Of Ashley Madison’s 37 million, only 5.5 million were female. Of Victoria Milan’s 235,000 Danish users, it is believed only 20,000 are female.
And according to the Impact Team, 90 percent of Ashley Madison’s female users are fembots – fake accounts designed to encourage men there is a market out there. It is a site that deals in fantasy, not reality.
It all sounds like a lot of effort, and it’s clearly not paying off for many members, as according to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center in 2015, only a third of all adultery site members have ever met somebody through the site – let alone had sex.
According to Katherine Harrison – a postdoctoral ressearcher at the University of Copenhagen who is currently working on a research project called ‘New Media – New intimacies’ – many of the members are prioritising intimacy over sex, and often the relationship remains online.
“Is it an authentic relationship if it is online?” she asked.
Harrison has been closely examining the marketing campaigns of Victoria Milan to understand what it is selling.
“What they sell is different kinds of intimacy. More than just sex. You can see that these sites try to offer romance and connection. They make infidelity look like a glossy lifestyle choice,” she observed.
They exist, she said, “because the practice of infidelity existed, so there was already a market that wanted them – technology and media has just changed the way we do it”.
Her opinion is echoed by Marlene Wasserman, a sex therapist and psychologist, who contends on her website that most men she has talked to about adultery sites didn’t think it was wrong unless it was consummated in real life – outside the virtual world.
“They think it’s not infidelity,” she said.
“It’s only infidelity if they go offline.”