Snicker if you wish at the prurient aspects of the Ashley Madison hack, but it's no laughing matter for anyone who cares about privacy. Thirty-three million records have been lifted from a company that claimed to be among the most secure on the Internet. Everyone should now realize what this means to our daily use of apps and websites, from social media to dating websites, and all of the information about us that has been compiled, stored and uploaded somewhere. We may have forgotten this information, but it has not forgotten us. Data doesn't forget.
We are living in a world where almost everything we say, write and do will be stored somewhere, indefinitely. The past ain't past any more – it's now electronically preserved in the eternal present. What previous generations knew as private life may in future simply be that which has yet to be uncovered and made public.
Canada's Charter of Rights grants a "reasonable expectation of privacy," and all of the major Western legal systems recognize the centrality of the principle. Last year the Supreme Court of Canada extended privacy rights to the Internet. But the law's traditional worry was about the government spying on individuals. That's not what this case is about.
The hackers shredded reputations and destroyed marriages; police in Toronto link the leak to two suicides. For what? The hack served no public interest. Infidelity isn't against the law, though breaking into someone's servers is.
So far in 2015, hackers have extracted classified information from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and a raft of other agencies worldwide who place a high value upon, and dedicate massive resources to, information security. The list of corporate giants to suffer major data leaks is long. Home Depot has been breached; so have Sony Pictures, eBay and Target, among others.
Typically, it's about stealing credit card numbers. The Ashley Madison situation goes further: exposing intimate personal interactions. The hackers say they wanted to reveal duplicitous business practices and a client base involved in morally objectionable behaviour. Neither was their judgment to make.