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How Ashley Madison hacks hurt everyone, not just cheaters

August 20, 2015, 5:46 PM UTC

Hackers who stole sensitive customer information from online cheating site seem to have made good on their threat this week to expose cheaters. The data dump on Tuesday is almost certainly unnerving many of its 32 million users, but the release of the data has broader implications that go beyond publicly shaming cheaters. It hurts all consumers who shop, bank and manage their health online.

Companies such as Amazon (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT) undoubtedly spend a lot of money to keep their users’ preferences hidden from prying eyes. But presumably so did Ashley Madison, although reports indicate that the company knew of possible security concerns before the breach but failed to act on them in time. The lesson here is that if a site that depends on discretion and security for its success can be hacked, so can many others. This can severely limit choice for consumers and hurt their ability to buy and sell legal goods freely on the Internet.

Take, for example, someone who wants to order a book on anxiety disorder. There’s obviously nothing wrong with reading about anxiety or depression but it’s a stigmatized topic that could be viewed negatively by your friends, family, or colleagues.

More: The ethics of naming users
Online retail also depends upon the ability of consumers to pay securely for purchases. Yet retailing giant Target (TGT) was the victim of a massive hack in 2013 that left the credit card information of millions of Americans compromised Banks like JP Morgan Chase (JPM) have also suffered from intrusions by hackers; in May, thieves gained access to 334,000 taxpayer accounts through a loophole in the IRS’s computer system.

Your credit card information, bank records, and tax returns, of course, can reveal a lot about your financial liquidity, your lifestyle, your investment strategy, and many other things you prefer to keep private to complete strangers. Not to mention that the exposure of the data that typically accompanies financial information, such as social security number, date of birth, and billing address, can leave you vulnerable to outright fraud and identity theft.

What’s more, the computerization of the healthcare industry has made it easier for doctors to keep track of their patients’ medical histories, test results, insurance information, and to schedule appointments. This reduces some of the red tape that increases healthcare costs and makes the process of caring for patients more efficient. It also, however, carries the risk of intensely personal and potentially damaging information about individuals’ health, such as diseases, medications, risk factors, becoming public knowledge in the event of a hack.

More: One in five Ottawans is registered on Ashley Madison

The hackers who targeted Ashley Madison claim that they were motivated by morality and the desire to expose weaknesses in the site’s security. But it would be just as easy for hackers to act out of the misguided pursuit of exposing problems in our healthcare system, shaming doctors perceived as being greedy, or out of political animosity toward Obamacare. Regardless of the rationale, the damage to patients’ rightful privacy and dignity would be immense.

And while the Internet has made it easy to search for information, it has also made it easy to have our most private curiosities become fodder for public judgment and ridicule. People rely on search engines like Google (GOOG) for useful content on self-improvement, medical ailments, financial planning, scientific developments, world events, and many other topics. What if you need information on filing for bankruptcy? The fact that you researched the topic shouldn’t be anyone’s business but yours but it’s certainly something that, if exposed, could put you in an awkward spot with a prospective employer, who might consider it a sign of irresponsibility.

More: Data breach aside, your Ashley Madison affair was never a secret

It’s worth noting that anonymous searching without being signed into a search engine’s account, or expressly requesting your search history to be deleted, offers some degree of protection. But even occasional slip-ups on your part can open a window for hackers and enable them to hold you hostage.

So while the misfortune of Ashley Madison’s users may be a source of amusement for many right now, it’s important to recognize the greater danger that this particular crime highlights for society as a whole.

S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking. He does not own any shares of the companies mentioned in this article.