As the first divorce to stem from the publication of the full subscriber rolls of adultery service Ashley Madison is filed, it’s worth stepping back from the current mood of outrage-cum-voyeurism to think about the broader implications of the attack.
Set aside for a moment that much of the information may turn out to be false, or that having your name in the system doesn’t mean you used the service (some journalists who created accounts for research purposes may find themselves in hot water).
Few people believe that ‘might makes right’ is a good model for organising human affairs, yet it seems that hackers might be bringing it back – with technical expertise taking the place of the big stick.
Whilst the initial fears for the age of information seemed to centre on all-pervasive surveillance by over-mighty governments, the spread of the internet has also allowed power to concentrate in the hands of technically skilled individuals who don’t even have a public identity, let alone any sort of mandate to impose their views on others.
Even those for whom the words “adultery service” are an auger of the end of civilisation shouldn’t make the mistake of endorsing this attempt to close down a legal enterprise through blackmail – not least because once you start licencing such behaviour, it willl be used by people you disagree with.
There’s also the fact that actual users of the site may vary wildly from the love-rat image that immediately leaps to mind.
(Not that the hackers show any awareness of this, derisively dismissing its entire user base as “cheating dirtbags” who don’t “deserve” discretion.)
Nor has the public humiliation of those whose decisions we disapprove of had any place in British justice since we abandoned the pillory.
In a democracy, we agree that the mechanism for deciding whose views have what legal weight is the Parliamentary process. We can no more endorse ‘ethical hackers’ closing down businesses than those absurd ‘Sharia patrols’ that sometimes crop up in London.
They’re both manifestations of the same ugly, arrogant impulse to extra-legal puritanism, and the imposition of private morality through coercion is wrong both on the street and the web.
It’s worth remembering just how granular the ultimatum delivered to Ashley Madison’s parent company actually was.
A site catering to men who wanted younger girlfriends – a “prostitution/human trafficking website”, according to the hackers – had to close. A mirror site aimed at ‘cougars’ seeking younger boyfriends on much the same basis did not.
Ashley Madison aren’t the first company to feel the wrath of ‘hacktivists’: geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor was hit on the basis of a fairly deranged conspiracy theory based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its business model. There will be more.
That’s before we take into account attacks on governments which can put sensitive diplomatic relations and vulnerable foreign agents at risk.
If we are to maintain the supremacy of the rule of law, we are going to have to develop much more rigorous methods both for protecting ourselves on the web and for tracking down and bringing to account those who attempt to abuse their power there.