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Ashley Madison hack shatters any illusions of tech privacy at work

The Ashley Madison hackers on Tuesday revealed that thousands of users of the infidelity dating site apparently signed up to cheat on their spouse with their work-related email address, striking evidence that many people are hanging on to the completely misguided notion that their use of workplace tech is private.

There’s probably nothing you’d want to keep more private than signing up for a site whose trademarked slogan is, “Life is short. Have an affair.” So the fact that more than 15,000 of the leaked customer records reportedly contain a .gov or .mil email address—and others seem to be from private companies including IBM and BAE Systems—suggests that those individuals believe they’re working in a private tech bubble. There is no such protective sphere. We’re living in a digital panopticon, one where everything’s on view, especially in the office.

Even if the group known as Impact Team hadn’t hacked and released 36 million records from Avid Life Media, the parent company of Ashley Madison, the users’ employers could have accessed email correspondence related to those accounts. And U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of employers who monitored text messages and emails sent via work-provided equipment or accounts.

In July, Impact Team claimed to have completely compromised Avid Life’s databases and financial records, releasing proprietary information as evidence and demanding that Avid Life shutter Ashley Madison as well as Established Men, a dating site that connects young women and wealthy men. The hackers targeted Avid Life because it allegedly created fake female profiles and had been selling a “full delete” service that claimed to remove users entirely from its database, which the hackers said was false. After both sites remained online for more than a month, the hackers released to the public a 9.7-gigabyte data file, including personal details, financial data, and user profiles that contain sexual preferences and fantasies. While Avid Life says the company is investigating the validity of the released information, the size of the breach and news reports citing Ashley Madison users suggest that much of the data is genuine.

 

It’s a situation ripe for destroying marriages, harming careers, and even subjecting Ashley Madison customers to blackmail and financial fraud. Anyone can download the Tor browser to access the portion of the dark web where the hackers posted the information, or use free search sites created to check whether a given email address is among the hacked data.

What were these would-be philanderers thinking?

Ever since email and Internet access became central to both work and our personal communications, we’ve had to navigate the boundary between the two. As smartphones and remote access to work computers blur the lines, it’s easy to comfortably move between tasks for work and personal life without much thought.

For the most part, there’s nothing problematic about this. When you’re working long hours, or traveling on business, it’s only natural to a use work computer and phone to contact loved ones or make personal arrangements—just as you may use a personal computer to check work email from home at night or participate in an overseas videoconference. This is just a facet of the working world in which we now live.

While most employers understand the need to call home, make travel plans, or even do some online shopping during office hours or via work devices, they take a different view when those personal interactions veer into the arena of dating and sex. Watching porn on work-provided technology, for instance, has been used as grounds for firing. In an open-plan office, visiting sexually related websites could also lead to claims of sexual harassment.

It’s no stretch to assume that the tens of thousands of Ashley Madison customers who signed up with work-related email addresses also used their employers’ computers or smartphones to browse profiles and post content to the site. They may have counted on the huge amounts of data created by their colleagues to drown out these activities. Or maybe they figured they were safe from the kind of embarrassing public hacks experienced by Sony, Target, and others.

While you may hesitate to cast judgment on the folks who decided to use a site dedicated to infidelity, one conclusion is perfectly clear: there is no such thing as privacy at work.