21 Aug 2015

Ashley Madison fallout: blackmail risk

Doctors, secondary school teachers and charity workers are among the paying customers of infidelity dating website Ashley Madison now at serious risk of blackmail after the site was hacked.

Analysis of the data leaked on Tuesday by hackers shows that the vast majority of the reported 1.2m UK users of the site were not paying customers.

Visitors to the site can browse profiles for free, but must pay to message. This means that many of those whose data has been leaked can claim that they were either signed up without their knowledge, or that they were just browsing.

That argument is going to be far more difficult for the 12,000 paying customers whose data has been analysed by Channel 4 News. Between them they made around 50,000 payments to the site, totalling more than $6m.

They include a senior member of staff at a leading accounting firm, several doctors, charity workers and even a wedding photographer. There is only one government email address listed among the paying customers, compared to the dozens found among those who registered but did not pay.

Many on the list have signed up using a generic email address from providers such as Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, but their computer’s IP address has also been logged, raising the risk that they can be traced back to the company where they signed up.

Family-values campaigner used website

A family values activist and US reality-television star is the most high-profile casualty of the Ashley Madison data leak so far.

Josh Duggar and his wife are known for being devout Christians who campaign against equal marriage and do not believe in practising birth control.

The American celebrity was reported by Gawker to have paid to use the website, which determines that he was at least to some extent an active user.

The controversial figure had to resign earlier in the year after it was reported that he had behaved inappropriately towards five young girls (at least two were his sisters) when he was a teenager.

In a statement on the Duggar family website, in response to the Ashley Madison revelations, Josh Duggar said “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have been unfaithful to my wife.”

He went on “The last few years, while publicly stating I was fighting against immorality in our country I was hiding my own personal failures.”

The original statement released referenced his “secret addiction” to viewing internet pornography for the last “several years” – this omission was later removed from the site.

Unseen consequences

As well as fears of blackmail, for users in some corners of the world, more serious potential consequences have been raised.

In addition to email addresses and names, the data leak contains personal details of people’s sexual preferences. After the revelations in July, a Saudi Arabian reddit user posted that he will have to try and leave the country because homosexuality carries the death penalty. The user explains he used Ashley Madison when he was studying in America.

There are also email addresses from the United Arab Emirates and Iran, which also carry serious punishments, including the death penalty, for homosexuality.

The reddit user said he hoped the hackers would see his message and “leave the single gay arab guy out of it”.