In what is becoming a depressingly regular occurrence, hackers have broken into a large electronic database and have now released the names, email addresses and other personal information of users they found in it. In this case, however, it’s not from a credit-card company or even a corporate email hack like Sony’s — this is the personal data of millions of users of a service that is specifically designed for adultery, namely Avid Media subsidiary Ashley Madison.
Every time such a hack occurs it raises ethical questions, especially for the media. When nude photos belonging to a number of actresses and celebrities were stolen from their iCloud accounts and released on the web last year, most mainstream media outlets refused to publish them — and even Reddit, which is often seen as a kind of lawless free-for-all, deleted a forum devoted to the photos.
When Sony’s email database was hacked, however, many media companies seemed more than happy to report on specific email conversations between celebrities and Sony executives, despite the fact that this was a clear invasion of privacy (although others did not). In some cases, an argument could be made that the discussions detailed in those emails was newsworthy in some larger sense, but for many it seemed to be just an excuse to report on personal feuds and internal politics in Sony’s movie unit.
The simple fact that these hacks are illegal isn’t really enough to stop journalists from writing about them, although some might argue that it should be. Illegal — and even treasonous — acts often result in journalism that is eminently defensible like the WikiLeaks cables or the video that Chelsea Manning stole from the military, or even Watergate. The only question is whether the public value of the revelation outweighs the illegality of the act. The problem is that many will have differing opinions about that math.
In the case of Ashley Madison, an argument could be made that this personal information isn’t anyone’s business, any more than it is when a media executive tries to hook up with a gay stripper, a story that Gawker Media published and then unpublished because founder Nick Denton decided it was an unjustified intrusion on that person’s private life. But what if politicians — especially prominent moral conservatives — are found using the service. Isn’t that legitimately newsworthy? What about members of the NSA or Justice Department?
Some have already outed themselves rather than wait for someone else to do it. And there have already been reports about how Ottawa, Canada’s capital, has the highest proportion of Ashley Madison users in the country, and possibly in the world. How long until some of them start showing up in news reports?
Ultimately, it may not even matter what choices mainstream media outlets make about what is newsworthy and what isn’t. In an age of ubiquitous publishing platforms like Twitter and Facebook, not to mention websites like Reddit and 4chan, anyone with a computer or a phone and an Internet connection is effectively a member of the media, whether they admit it or not. And as John Herrman at The Awl has pointed out, Ashley Madison data is already in the process of being published:
Given the fact that this information is already appearing on the social web, it becomes even more likely that mainstream or traditional media entities will write about it, since all they have to do is point to the existing discussion or outing on some other website or social network. In effect, we are all the media now, so the debate over what is newsworthy — and where we should draw the line on personal privacy — isn’t just for traditional media outlets to decide. It’s for all of us to decide.
The hackers who released this data have explicitly said that they did so for moral or ethical reasons (although this could be a lie, of course). “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” one statement said. If we publish the names and other information contained in that database, aren’t we to some extent agreeing with them, or at least validating their decision to invade someone’s privacy because they cheat on their spouse?
The problem — not just for media outlets, but for anyone with a Twitter or Reddit account — is that these kinds of hacks are almost irresistible: the data is just sitting there, ready and waiting to be used. Virtually no work has to be done, except to do a text search of the information, or a cursory attempt to verify the identity of the user. And so the decision about what is newsworthy ultimately becomes a sliding scale, and the end result of that process is often all too predictable.
For more about Ashley Madison, watch this Fortune video: