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Ashley Madison and the Internet’s “Original Accident”

The news that a website, retailer, or famous individual has been the victim of hackers has, at this point, become not particularly sensational. It’s the type of revelation that still garners some attention, but what is lacking from such stories tends to be much in the way of surprise. Granted, that a hack occurred generally comes across as particularly mundane in comparison to the lascivious details that may be revealed – from private photographs of celebrities to a corporation’s crass internal communications. Often times the victims of a hack are made to seem as if they themselves are the guilty parties for the breach, as if their engaging in a certain activity means they deserved to be the target of hackers.

Yet when so many individuals have so much personal information accessible online, it is worth considering the degree to which most (if not all) users of the Internet are potential victims of a future hack. Regardless of whether or not they have engaged in any online activities that some would paint as questionable. When it comes to Internet connected platforms and devices we may feel as though we are in control; however, as Erich Fromm observed:

“There is also no strength in use and manipulation of objects; what we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (Fromm, 225)

Every time personal information is obtained, and leaked (or potentially leaked), by hackers what the victims are given is a powerful reminder that just because they are using a platform does not mean that it is theirs. Many of us use the Internet every single day, but it is not ours simply because we use it.

The most recent hack to grab headlines centers on the website Ashley Madison – a sort of dating site/social network that encourages people in relationships to pursue other relationships. It is the type of website whose success depends, one can imagine, largely upon its users believing that their information is private and secure. Yet, as the recent hack reveals, it is still possible for all manner of personal details – as well as credit card numbers – to be stolen from the site. It is probably fair to say that those with memberships to a “have an affair” website would prefer that their details not be made public, but by the same token it is hard to imagine users of any website being particularly thrilled by the idea of having their credit card information and home address splashed across the Internet.

The Ashley Madison hack has allowed for a fair amount of moralizing victim blaming/shaming mixed with a significant helping of schadenfreude (at least in terms of the responses one found on social media). Responses to the hack carry a whiff of the sentiment “they deserved it for being on that website,” which is itself not too significantly different from responses to the hacking of private celebrity photos which claim “they deserved it for taking those photos.” Yet it seems that in all of these cases the main thing of which people are genuinely guilty is placing too much trust in websites, servers, large companies, and in the belief that others will respect their privacy. And this is a type of guilt shared by nearly all Internet users.

When a website that exists to enable affairs is targeted by hackers it is easy to get lost in the moral policing of others online behavior in which being on a given site is cast as worse (or just as bad) as the actual act of hacking that site, though those responsible for the Ashley Madison hack do not seem to have been driven by disapproval of the site’s purpose. The intention here, of course, is not to vilify all acts of hacking and leaking – as individuals such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden have shown such actions can fulfill an important service to the public. However, it does seem that a difference exists between exposing information to benefit the public good, and exposing the public’s “goods.” It is easy to turn a site like Ashley Madison into a target for derision and it is easy to portray its users as desperate to keep their Internet enabled affairs secret – but it is also easy to imagine a hack like this targeting any number of other sites where it is harder to portray the victims as “asking for it.” The dating site eHarmony, ostensibly, has much similar content to what was hacked from Ashley Madison – surely the users of that site would not want their home addresses, credit card details, and other private information hacked and leaked to the public. And the same could be said of numerous websites that have nothing to do with romance.

A heck of a lot of people have used a credit card online, a heck of a lot of people have input their home address online, and a heck of a lot of people have taken private photos that they sent online but which they only intend to be seen by a specific recipient – this does not mean that all of those people are members on a site that helps people find partners for affairs, but it is not too significant a stretch to suggest that most people have some information online which they would not like to be hacked and made public. This has nothing to do with being a saint.

The question that emerges with every hack – though it is not commonly asked – is to what degree does simply being online mean that one is susceptible to being the future victim of a hack? Certainly, individuals can make use of strong passwords, privacy plug-ins, and the like – but when an individual puts their trust in a particular website they may wind up surrendering a fair bit of their control. One route may be to use the Internet with a light touch – never buying anything online and never inputting personal data – yet such a suggestion is unlikely to convince many individuals. It may be that using the Internet is like using any other technology – there are certain risks associated with it, even if they are only discussed when something goes wrong. Such an emphasis on the accidents inherent in any technology has been an important element in the work of the philosopher Paul Virilio, he writes:

“So we need to try and unearth ‘the original accident’ specific to this kind of technological innovation. Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.” (Virilio, 40 – italics in original text)

It may seem a comically obvious point to make – but before there were websites there were no hacks of websites.

The intention here is in no way shape or form to engage in victim blaming or to try and police the morality of people who use Ashley Madison, but instead to suggest – apropos Virilio – that perhaps these hacks are “the hidden face” of Internet technologies, a face that reveals itself “in spite of us.” Or, to restate the point, what has befallen the users of Ashley Madison could have happened to users of numerous websites. It is not necessarily shame or embarrassment that is causing Ashley Madison users consternation at the moment – worry about your information being hacked and distributed online is a rational anxiety for any user of a site/platform that has been hacked. A measure of empathy with hacking victims is important – regardless of whether or not a person has ever used a site like Ashley Madison or sent pictures they’d like kept private – as online users are pretty much all the potential victims of a future hack. Though it seems that there is a fair amount of “deliberately forgetting” that goes into overlooking the ways in which the creation of a new site is also the invention of the potential hack of that site. In this situation of inventions and accidents, Virilio counseled:

“Every technology, every science should choose its specific accident, and reveal it as a product—not in a moralistic, protectionist way (safety first), but rather as a product to be ‘epistemo-technically’ questioned.” (Virilio and Lotringer, 47)

This is a line that should be considered in parallel with another line from Virilio:

“No more illusions about technology. We do not control what we produce. Knowing how to do it doesn’t mean we know what we are doing. Let’s try to be a little more modest, and let’s try to understand the riddle of what we produce.” (Virilio and Lotringer, 76)

The Internet is often cast as the ultimate panacea – through its graces every challenging social, political and economic problem will be magically solved and all of humanity shall skip merrily into the high-tech future. Yet the Internet, and the material devices necessary to make the Internet work, is the site of numerous levels of “accidents” many of which go unseen. True, horrid mining regimes, exploitative labor practices, and mountains of toxic e-waste do not quite grab the public imagination (in affluent nations) in the same way that a train crash does – but in the same way a website being hacked does not seem nearly as dramatic as a shipwreck. And yet the “original accident” of the Internet – its “specific accident” – may not be anything as loud and fiery as a train going off the rails – indeed it may be the type of accident that becomes so routine as to begin to seem as though its just another part of the process. Despite promises of ironclad cyber-security and exhortations to encrypt everything the types of hacks that have become commonplace of late should be seen “as a product” of the Internet. And when confronted as such it should allow Internet users to honestly compare the risks with the potential gains – and even if the majority choose to focus on the gains it does not mean that the risks disappear.

When a website gets hacked, when a person’s private information gets strewn all across cyberspace, it should be an occasion to “try to be a little more modest” – for we too could be the victims of the next hack – this is, after all, one of the Internet’s “original accidents.”

Just being online, does not mean that a person deserves it. But it also does not mean that they can ignore the danger of potential accidents.

Drive carefully.

Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics. London: 2001.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Verso. London: 2008.

Virilio, Paul and Lotringer, Sylvère. Pure War. Semiotext(e). Los Angeles, 2008.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on July 21, 2015 by in Ethics, Privacy, Social Networking, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , , .

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