Ashley Madison hack: Project Unicorn meets The Scarlet Letter

The revelation that the site’s hack has led to unconfirmed suicides is an odd tidbit. Has moralizing infiltrated the investigation of the leak?

Content image
A man looks at the Ashley Madison website in this photo illustration in Toronto on Thursday, August 20, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
A man looks at the Ashley Madison website in this photo illustration in Toronto on Thursday, August 20, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

At Monday’s 35-minute press conference held by the Toronto’s Police Service to discuss the data hack that exposed the private information of a reported 37 million members of Ashley Madison, a “dating” website for people who are married or in a “committed relationship,” Acting Staff Supt. Bryce Evans asserted again and again that investigators would approach the crime as they would any other. “Police don’t care about the nature of the website,” Evans said. “The fact that some people are offended does not, and will not, deter us.”

Yet, throughout the presser, it was clear that the moral judgment that apparently motivated and now blankets the hack also infuses the investigation. This was most evident in Evans’s announcement that “two unconfirmed suicides” in Toronto had been associated with the hack, a comment that made international headlines, often without the “unconfirmed” part mentioned. It was an odd disclosure, one destined to put Ashley Madison’s chipper slogan—”Life is short; have an affair”—in a chilling new context. The police refused to provide more information to Maclean’s, other than that they had “received a call that morning” and that it reflected the “seriousness” of the hack. Anyone following the story closely will know already that the widow of a policeman in San Antonio, Texas, a 25-year force veteran named as an Ashley Madison member who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound shortly after the data leak, has been dragged into the mess. During the press conference, Evans revealed, in answer to a question, that no one of “any status” has asked for direct police help.

Speculation that police referred to “unconfirmed” suicides to build a case that could later be used by prosecutors, should the case ever reach sentencing, was shot down by Toronto criminal lawyer Jonathan Rosenthal: “It’s a real stretch to suggest that if there’s a suicide, and someone claims it’s a result of disclosure on a website, it can be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing,” he says. Rosenthal sees mention of suicides as a bid to stoke “media hysteria” surrounding the hack, and to convey the seriousness of the crime: “It’s strategic in the sense that [the police] want people to take hacking seriously,” he says. “It’s, ‘We’re going to make it serious, because, purportedly, two people who might have access to Ashley Madison—whose details might have been leaked—might have killed themselves, and might have killed themselves because of the leak. So change your passwords today.’ ”

Dropping the sensational tidbit, one that seems immaterial to the ongoing investigation, is revealing of the dilemma law enforcement faces. It’s uncharted territory, a bizarre hybrid of Scarlet Letter-style moralizing and high-tech vigilantism played out in an amorphous space that’s next-to-impossible to patrol. A cast of thousands—U.S. Homeland Security, FBI, RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, along with “top security experts from around the world”—have been called in, Evans revealed, to solve “one of the largest data breaches in the world.” The fact that the hack is believed to be motivated by moral outrage, not greed (hackers justified their actions as a response to the website’s “fraud, stupidity and deceit”) suggests that the traditional “follow the money” approach doesn’t apply. Evans appealed for help to white-hat hackers, as well as denizens of the “Dark Web,” a semi-anonymous netherworld, who might know something. As incentive, Toronto-based Avid Life, Ashley Madison’s parent company, has posted a $500,000 reward for information leading to arrest, he announced.

Much effort was expended throughout the press conference to highlight the illegality of the data breach, oddly referred to at one point as a “hate crime”—and that the people outed and, by extension, their families, were victims. The hackers’ action is “clearly criminal in nature,” Evans said, a comment that would be unnecessary, had someone, say, hacked into a bank’s server. He also outlined a criminal incubator spawned by the “reckless behaviour”—scams promising to erase online information, extortion. He advised “victims who have been compromised” to contact police.

Framing the data hack in traditional crime/victim metrics isn’t an easy sell, however, given the smug schadenfreude that has greeted the breach. Many see it as a cathartic “gotcha” moment, justice delivered to a company that encourages extramarital affairs, and the “cheaters” who saw their names, emails, credit card data and profiles, including their “turn-ons,” spilled for the world to see.

Just as the Sony hack offered a fascinating glimpse into backroom Hollywood back-stabbing and bad behaviour, so Ashley Madison’s provides a voyeuristic portal into mass marital ennui and the fact that adultery still summons shame. The result is a 19th-century morality play enacted in a reality-show digital age, one now punctuated by the potential tragedy of “unconfirmed” suicides. Would-be or bona fide adulterers aren’t only plastered with a scarlet A, but branded for paying to commit adultery, and as naive for trusting that their identities would be protected on an adultery website. Many people outed, no doubt, are also parents who have lectured their kids not to send naked texts of themselves. (One of Ashley Madison’s selling points, paradoxically, was the belief that everyone had something to lose with exposure, a sort of mutually assured destruction form of protection.)

Now, given the viral, public nature of the hack, partners, and even children, have been affected, said Evans on Monday, in a bid to draw sympathy for the collateral damage: “We’re talking families, wives, male partners. It’s going to have impacts on their lives.” It’s not the “fun and games” portrayed in some media outlets, he said. “It’s affecting all of us.”

The press conference also revealed that the investigation has been code-named “Project Unicorn.” When asked why, Evans later answered in an email via a police spokesperson that it was because a unicorn summoned “a mythical and fantasy-type world.” It’s an odd response, given the human wreckage and shame emphasized at the press conference. What Evans didn’t say is that the mythical unicorn is also a symbol of purity and grace that, according to medieval lore, can only be captured by a virgin. It’s a label that suggests someone on the force has a sense of humour. That, or he or she believes the search will ultimately prove futile.