Where were you when the Ashley Madison leak happened? I remember where I was – in my room, watching a YouTube video about the breach. Hearing that 3.9 million users had their real names, addresses, and card information published after signing up for an extramarital-affair dating site was hilarious. Seventeen-year-old me did not understand hacking or data security. All I knew was that these cheating old dudes were getting their just desserts, served to them by a group of hackers with a distaste for shady behavior and infidelity. What a story!
Four years of journalism education later, I now realize that this data breach meant so much more than what it implied. The site’s users were suddenly “limited public figures”, meaning they were suddenly thrust into the public eye. Their privacy is protected – to an extent – because they did not necessarily “sign up” to be famous when they signed up for Ashley Madison. One must ask what is more important: the privacy of the users or society’s interest in the now-public information? Anthony Lewis’ Freedom for the Thought We Hate explains that Supreme Court Justice Clark weighed the two against each other; deeming the latter more important as our society is one that values free speech.
As a member of society, my curiosity is paramount. Sure, some of Ashley Madison’s users were people who were already public figures – like Josh Duggar of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting – but how many of us can say we were paying attention to the random White House employees who were accessing the site from work computers before the breach? This leads me, as a citizen, to question what’s going on down at the White House. How much work is really getting done if these people have time to cheat online? I want answers!
Legally, though, I am not afforded these answers. Even though my freedom to comment is present, Ashley Madison’s users have a right to privacy and a right to be let alone. Simply, nobody needs to tell me anything they don’t want to. The reality is that these hackers were not bringing anyone to justice – they were stealing information, information that was being guarded by a private group offering a service in return for the information (and a bit of money.) A right to privacy in the case of limited public figures and regular citizens beats out public curiosity – and although it’s not necessarily illegal for journalists to publish this information (in order to satiate gossip-hungry readers like myself…) there is a moral push and pull. They can use the stolen information in exposés and answer my questions about the government and why these employees are cheating on the clock; or forgo it and respect the lives of these people… subsequently depriving us of information that might be important. Journalists, what would you do?