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By Chava Gourarie, Source : Columbia Journalism Review

The so-called “cheating site” marketed itself as a discreet dating site for married adults seeking extramarital affairs or other unconventional arrangements, though not all users met that description. The site boasts a staggering 39 million “anonymous members” on its home page.Ashley Madison did not require users to confirm their email address, so anyone could have signed up using someone else’s information.Without judging the merits of each individual case, it’s clear that reporting on the private data of millions of ordinary citizens that has been stolen by unknown hackers raises serious ethical questions.

On Thursday ( 20 Aug,2015) morning, the hosts of an Australian radio show invited listeners to call in if they suspected their partners of cheating. The hosts would then search for the supposed cheaters’ names in the membership rolls of Ashley Madison, a dating Web site that appeals to married adults with the slogan, “Life is short, have an affair.” The site was hacked in July, and earlier this week, the personal details of tens of millions of users were leaked to the Web.

A female caller griped about her husband for a moment, and then the hosts of the Fitzy and Wippa Show typed in his email address.

“Yeah, he’s actually on the site,” Fitzy said.

“Are you serious?” the woman asked, clearly rattled, despite her earlier suspicions. “Are you freaking kidding me?” She sounded like she was going to cry, and hung up abruptly.

“I don’t know if we should have done that,” Wippa said after the caller was gone. “That hasn’t left me with a good feeling.”

That ethical queasiness has—or should have—afflicted journalists everywhere writing about the data dump, which involves the stolen personal data of almost 32 million Ashley Madison users going back to 2007, including names, birth dates, and partial credit card numAshley Madisonbers.

The so-called “cheating site” marketed itself as a discreet dating site for married adults seeking extramarital affairs or other unconventional arrangements, though not all users met that description. While certainly not a household name before the hack, the site boasts a staggering 39 million “anonymous members” on its home page.

Within hours of the data being posted on the Tor network, there was an easy way to search any email address online to see if it showed up in the Ashley Madison client database. A slew of articles followed. Gawker outed Josh Duggar, the star of 19 Kids and Counting, and supposed model family man. The Times-Picayune in New Orleansouted a GOP executive director who claims he started an account for research. The Washington Post post wrote about patterns in the aggregate data, like how people lie about their birthdays, for example. The Associated Press used Internet Protocol addresses to identify users in the White House who logged in from their work computers, though not necessarily with their work emails.

Without judging the merits of each individual case, it’s clear that reporting on the private data of millions of ordinary Americans that has been stolen by unknown hackers raises serious ethical questions. Reporters are digging through people’s personal email addresses, home addresses, physical descriptions, and preferences, sexual or otherwise. Is this ‘Gawker Christmas’ as one Twitter user put it, a treasure trove of data just asking to be shared? Or should journalists honor users’ privacy, regardless of their questionable morality or naivete?

“I don’t know if we even know the right questions to ask,” says Monica Guzman, vice-chair of ethics at the Society of Professional Journalists. “This is unprecedented in journalism, the frequency with which information that previously would not have been disclosed is being revealed.”

The hacked data is not entirely reliable. Ashley Madison did not require users to confirm their email address, so anyone could have signed up using someone else’s information. In addition, an online user account does not prove that somebody cheated.

The hackers, who call themselves the Impact Team, said after the initial breach that they hacked Ashley Madison because it was both immoral and fraudulent. They alleged that many of the female profiles on the site were fake, and that the $19 ‘Full Delete’ option to erase a profile amounted to extortion. The hackers threatened to release the stolen client data if Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s parent company, didn’t take it and several related properties offline.

“We have explained to you the fraud, deceit and stupidity of ALM and its users,” the hackers wrote this week. “Now everyone gets to see their data.”

For some journalists, the argument is simple: there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The data is out there, and as long as we apply the journalistic standards of newsworthiness, public interest, and minimizing harm, why not treat it like any other information?

Guzman dismisses that argument. “Public is not the same as published,” she says. “If you’re a journalist, you are assuming responsibility for what you publish.”

“We’re looking at these hacks like forces of nature. These are crimes, not tornados,” Guzman says. “Somebody made that happen. We should know who they are.”

In this case, the source of the information could undermine the credibility of the reporting, said Sean Sposito, a reporter and data specialist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The data “came from folks who stole it, then it went into a black box, and then we don’t know what happened to it,” Sposito says. “Could they have added names?”

He argues that even downloading and searching the data is questionable, regardless of whether it will be published. “From an ethical standpoint, do you want to have credit card numbers on your machine? Even partial credit card numbers, dates of birth?” This is especially true since the data contains information that can be used to identify someone even without a first and last name. “By downloading this, we’re violating their privacy,” Sposito says.

Mona Chalabi, a writer at FiveThirtyEight, said the editorial decisionin her newsroom was not to use the data: “It’s just unfair to people. It’s unethical for us to use the data without their consent.” That might even be the case if you anonymized the data, because it’s highly unreliable, Chalabi says. People lie in online profiles all the time.

An AP journalist took a more sophisticated approach to mining the data. Instead of using the email addresses, he cross-referenced IP addresses of Ashley Madison users with internet registration records and found federal government employees who’d been using the site from their work computers at the White House and other government facilities. They include two assistant U.S. attorneys, a technology administrator in the Executive Office of the President, and a hacker for the Department of Homeland Security. The AP released the positions but not the names of the Ashley Madison users “because they are not elected officials or accused of a crime.”

Guzman says that instead of focusing solely on the results of the hack, journalists should be focusing on the perpetrators. So far, there have been few repercussions—for companies or hackers—despite high profile leaks at places like Target, Home Depot, and Sony.

“Usually, journalism is about questioning those in power. And these hackers have a shit ton of power,” Guzman says, “I would love to see a story about that.”

Chava Gourarie is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at@ChavaRisa

Original Link to the story : http://www.cjr.org/criticism/ashley_madi son_hack_reporting.php

Additional reading –

An Indian Context to Ashley Madison from the Economic Times

Women’s e-Mpowerment: Sites like Ashley Madison

are the new go to place

By: Rajyasree Sen in The Economic Times

To cheat is divine. To get caught is human.

To put things in perspective, imagine you’re in a dead-end marriage, but for whatever reason, you don’t want out. Instead, you decide to have an extramarital affair. It’s easier and far more fun than getting a divorce.

You find yourself a lover, and just to foolproof your plan, your lover and you decide to not canoodle in the city. Instead, you locate a suitably shady hotel in Madh Island, check in and start making the beast with two backs.

But then, the Mumbai Police break the door down and arrest you. Why? Because they can.

Undeterred, you decide nothing will come in the way of you and your affair. You will now go phoren. You discover Ashley Madison, beautifully described on its home page as “the most famous name in infidelity and married dating…. With our affair guarantee package, we guarantee you will find the perfect affair partner.”

What a winning proposition. You immediately create a profile for yourself and also pay £15 for the ‘full-delete’ option, to remove all your login information from the dating site — which includes your email, date of birth, city, state, postcode, country, gender, relationship status, sexual preferences and what you’re looking for in a partner. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the next thing you know you’re astatistic, because Ashley Madison has been hacked and account details and logins for approximately 32 million users are now available online.

Anyone can just enter your email ID and find out if you were a member of the site. How utterly unfair. Can no one have an affair in peace any more? If it’s not the Mumbai Police, it’s a bunch of hackers ruining the party.

Getting caught up in the excitement, Spanish digital agency Tecnilógica has created a geographical distribution map to show the gender-specific global spread of Ashley Madison’s users. New Delhi, it seems, leads with 38,652 users, followed by Mumbai (33,036), Chennai (16,434) and Kolkata (11,807). Lucknow and Patna trail at 3,885 and 2,524 respectively.

If you’re a woman, you can take solace in the fact that you’re not the only one walking the scarlet bedrooms of Ashley Madison. It seems more than 80% of users from India are women.

Ihave no bone of contention with the concept of Ashley Madison. In fact, I’m quite impressed by their out-ofthe-box thinking. They’ve not only found a niche for themselves, but also realised that there is a demand for what they are offering and have become the sole suppliers of ‘it’.

Ashley Madison basically provides asafe platform for consenting adults —married, though, they may be — to find sex, love, and a little slap and tickle to boost their lives. It should actually be complimented for doing a yeoman service for the married by ensuring fewer divorces and happier marriages — in a manner of speaking. It’s like a release valve.

Avid Life Media, which owns Ashley Madison, has another site that should be wildly popular in India: Established Men. This site is built to help young women find “successful and generous benefactors to fulfil their lifestyle needs” — not to be confused with what often passes as a ‘husband’ in India.

The hackers were neither a technologically-savvy offshoot of the Sri Ram Sena, nor were they a part of the IT Cell of the Mumbai Police’s Madh Island branch. In fact, they were not morally outraged at all by the dealings on Ashley Madison.

They were ethically outraged by Ashley Madison duping customers by claiming that by paying £15 extra for the full-delete option, the site would wipe out their personal data and digital footprint from the site. An option that doesn’t work, as is obvious from the data dump that has taken place.

Maybe someone should inform the hackers that losing £15 is far less damaging to users, than having their presence on the site revealed along with details of their pet sexual peccadilloes and nudie pictures. How can this possibly help anyone? So if you were a member, not only have you been duped of £15, but you’re also going to be named and shamed by a bunch of fraud-sensitive online vigilantes.

The only silver lining in l’affaire Ashley Madison is that we now know that Indian women are not really as sexually repressed as we’d thought. Thanks to the internet, a quiet online sexual revolution has been underway. And we wouldn’t have known about it if it wasn’t for this fiasco.

Original link to this story : http://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/et-commentary/womens-e-mpowerment-sites-like-ashley-madison-are-the-new-go-to-place/