Extramarital dating website Ashley Madison has been hacked. The hackers identify themselves as The Impact Team. Despite sounding like the name of a terrible eighties movie, the Impact Team are putting out some pretty serious threats. Unless their demands are met they will release customers’ real names, profiles, nude photos, credit card information, and sexual fantasies. But who is in the right here? Is it the website encouraging people to cheat on their partners? Or is it the group of hackers threatening to release people’s personal information? Likewise are the 37 million members merely victims or did they have this coming?

The answer is a nuanced one. My first instinct was to condemn the site whose tagline is ‘Life is short. Have an affair’. Almost anyone, especially people who have been cheated on, would have this reaction. Of course they need to be exposed but let’s take a moment and consider whether Impact’s reaction is a reasonable one. Only two months ago another website, Adult FriendFinder, was hacked and the information of 3.5 million members (of the 45 million subscribers) was released. In this case it’s hard to argue on the side of the hackers. These people had no explicit intentions to cheat and were innocently using a dating site.

So what were the intentions of this hack? The perpetrator, Andrew Auernheimer, stated that he began with government workers as they would be the easiest to shame. He also claimed that one victim, a naval intelligence officer, tried to cheat on his wife. As we grasp for some motivation it would seem that in the Adult FriendFinder case it was a healthy mix of sadism and vigilante revenge.

It’s always tempting to spice things up when you’ve been staring at a wall for three straight days.
It’s always tempting to spice things up when you’ve been staring at a wall for three straight days.

So does anyone have the right to inject their own morality into other people’s lives? No. Imposing ones values on others is oppression at best and terrorism at worst. A more systematic example of this is the banning of gay sex in some parts of the USA until 2003, or refusing gays the right to marry until even more recently. Right-wing parties like the English Defence League (EDL) or the Republican party in the USA are terrified of other cultures (Islam specifically) being imposed upon them despite imposing their own values on others against their will. Granted this hack doesn’t approach the nefariousness of the Republicans or ISIS but it represents the same misguided self-righteousness. Unless you are involved in someone’s life, unless you care about their wellbeing, then what they do is none of your business, and even what’s ‘right’ is relative. It is the business of a friend to warn of an affair if they are privy to that information but it is by no means the business of strangers. The motivation of the friend is concern; the motivation of the stranger is ‘justice’.

Ninja masks are essential when you’ll never see or meet anyone your actions will effect.
Ninja masks are essential when you’ll never see or meet anyone your actions will effect.

Then there’s the question of whether extramarital sex is inherently wrong. When it is labelled ‘cheating’, the implication is that the couple have agreed to be exclusive with one another. In that case the sexual act is not so much immoral but rather the breaking of an agreement. So then the problem is not primarily with the affair itself, but with the state of the agreement or the fact that it was entered into in the first place. Clearly the cheating party didn’t want to be in an exclusive partnership or changed their mind partway through. In the case of the former the solution is to find someone with whom a non-exclusive relationship would be a viable option, in the case of the latter either renegotiation or divorce seem appropriate.

So should Ashley Madison be shut down? Yes. Should the 37 million members have their details exposed? No. No doubt some are secretly cheating, but some may have agreed with a spouse but chosen to keep it a secret from their friends for fear of judgement – a common situation in consensual polyamory.

This sweeping justice is perverse, as is any punishment that doesn’t take the nuances of humanity into consideration.