By now, you’ve surely heard about the Ashley Madison hack. A hacker group revealed account details from more than 30 million users of the site, which specializes in connecting individuals interested in having an extramarital affair.
This hack is an interesting one from a reputation standpoint. It is now forcing many consider whether anything you do online is private, how much your private life can influence your professional life, and what you can do to keep your private life just that: private.
With millions of email addresses revealed, including government officials, college professors, teachers, celebrities, and everyday people, there’s no telling the amount of damage we’ll see from this information breach. It’s likely we’ll be seeing not just divorces, but potentially suicides, firings, resignings, and of course, major reputation loss.
The Ashley Madison hack has revealed the emails of government officials, federal employees, college professors, teachers, celebrities, and of course, regular, everyday people who have all signed up to potentially have an affair. The website once promised discretion and security — but we’re guessing they aren’t making any guarantees of the sort anymore.
In the wake of this scandal, it’s important for everyone, not just Ashley Madison users, to consider how your private life can have a serious impact on your reputation. You should also consider how you can avoid being involved in a similar scandal — or even just move on from this one.
The Reputation Damage of Ashley Madison
There’s a lot at stake in this hack: individuals with families, high profile jobs, and stellar reputations now stand to have their images tarnished as their inclusion on the list is revealed.
Your personal affairs can cause serious problems for your professional life. Just ask Josh Duggar how he’s handling this as a self proclaimed “biggest hypocrite ever.” Duggar already lost his career as a lobbyist and cost his family their 19 Kids and Counting TV show with his molestation scandal. The account revealed in the hack has only solidified his reputation for bad judgment as he lives publicly as an ultra conservative Christian husband, but behaves differently in private.
Others included in the hack are YouTube celebrity Sam Rader, who runs a Christian based family lifestyle channel with his wife, and Florida State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who became famous as the prosecutor for the Casey Anthony murder trial. There are a number of others who have already reported trouble with their reputations as a result of the Ashley Madison hack. One business woman is concerned about her finance career, as she has highly personal relationships with her clients who are typically couples and small businesses. She foresees losing business and contracts — potentially even losing a contract with her employer.
Employers are currently looking into whether their employees may be involved in the hack. Human resources administrators at some financial advisor firms are already examining information from tech staff concerning personnel who may be affected based on Internet activity.
The damage may be even worse for those who have logged on to Ashley Madison at work, or even those who used a work email address. It’s possible that these employees will be fired for wasting resources at work. It’s believed there are more than 15,000 military and government email addresses registered on the database. These include NASA, the United Nations, even the White House. Some also include senior professors at top universities.
The damage from the Ashley Madison hack will persist beyond initial shameful statements and firings, however. We expect to see that articles about high profile individuals will permeate for months, even years in search engine results. And we can’t yet quantify the loss of trust and revenue that is likely to occur if it’s revealed that a business owner or CEO is involved on the list. This is a problem for corporations and small business owners alike as personal scandals follow individuals into their business lives.
Ashley Madison: The New Mug Shot Website?
We may soon see the Ashley Madison information treated similarly to mug shots. On mug shot websites, individuals who have been booked in jail with a mug shot are revealed online. Often, the photos and booking information are displayed prominently on search engine results, and can be a serious problem for an individual’s reputation. Some mug shot websites allow individuals to remove their photo from the database — for a price — putting them in a tough situation.
The Ashley Madison information is similarly sensitive and damaging. The data from the Ashley Madison hack is available through BitTorrent clients, and a number of websites have popped up to distribute the data publicly. We’re already seeing blackmailers and hackers who threaten to reveal the information to loved ones, or obliterate the information, always for a price. It will be interesting to see how the value of the hacked information evolves.
Can We Trust Ashley Madison Data?
One of the most difficult facts about the Ashley Madison hack is that many of the individuals impacted may not have actually signed up for accounts. It’s believed that 34% of the email addresses in the Ashley Madison database are fake. That means not all of the users revealed in the hack signed up — and not everyone with an account is necessarily an adulterer.
Users on Ashley Madison are able to sign up without verification, and it’s clear that many users entered false email addresses to check out the website before actually investing in paid accounts. There’s also evidence that many female profiles were fake, and few female accounts were actually used.
Vice President Joe Biden’s son Robert Hunter Biden has denied that an Ashley Madison account with his email address is linked to him. The account uses an old email address and has some incorrect information. Biden isn’t the only one. Newly elected Edingburgh official Michelle Thomson says that her email was used to set up an Ashley Madison account, but it’s not hers.
Other accounts, such as Duggar’s, do seem to be actually connected with the individual. It appears Duggar used credit cards in his own name and connected to his grandmother’s address as well as his home address to pay for his Ashley Madison subscriptions (including a $250 fee for a guaranteed affair) from February 2013 to May 2015.
And though there may be millions of accounts that aren’t truly linked to the individuals named on them, the accounts with credit card and other information that accurately lines up with the user can’t be easily discredited. It’s reported that Duggar spent nearly $1,000 on the website: users who have used a credit card on the website can’t simply claim innocence or even curiosity, as it’s clear they’ve actually invested in the potential (or reality) of having an affair.
This also brings up an important question: is this a new way to ruin someone’s reputation? Anyone can create an account with your email address on Ashley Madison or another website with embarrassing implications and questionable security. It’s possible for your email address, phone number, or other information to end up in a troubling database such as this one without any involvement from you. It’s even possible for others to use your photo for an account on a website like Ashley Madison without your permission or knowledge.
Damage Control for Ashley Madison Users
If you’re on the Ashley Madison list (legitimately or not), you may have some explaining to do. And your reputation may never be the same. Where do you go from here?
First, it’s important to accept that there is no going back. Your name is on the list, and it’s just not coming off. There is no deleting, hacking, or paying anyone to remove it. It’s there, and it will continue to be there despite your efforts. There is no magic delete button.
There are so many copies of the list floating around now, it is next to impossible for all of them to be edited or deleted. New websites with the database information are being launched every day. Some individuals on the list have discussed turning to hackers who can try to take down any mentions — this is not recommended. Even on the long shot that every list is successfully changed, there’s still a good chance the original lists can still be accessed with web caching or the Internet Archive. This is a cat that can’t be put back in the bag.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is there is still plenty you can do to minimize the exposure and damage to your reputation:
- Be honest: Honesty is always the best policy, and that stands true here. If you were curious about the site and wanted to sign up, don’t hide it. Come clean if you had a paid account, and come clean if you’ve had an affair. At this point, the information is out there, and there’s no chance of keeping it under wraps. If you haven’t been approached about your involvement yet, take this time to craft your message and be prepared. You may also consider proactively revealing the information on your own so that you can do it on your own terms.
- Take privacy measures: It’s a good idea to ditch your email address and credit card. If you’re still using the email address that’s associated with Ashley Madison, now is a good time to drop it. Your email address is likely to become a problem when making new connections, applying for a job, or undergoing any background checks, as your connection to Ashley Madison may pop up in a search for your email. If you used a credit card on the site, assume it is compromised and ask your card issuer for a new one. The same goes for phone numbers, security questions, user names, and passwords: reset them all on any other unrelated accounts you might have used this information for, because it is now compromised.
- Ignore blackmailers and online scams: You may be contacted by blackmailers who threaten to tell your family, boss, clients, and other contacts about your account on Ashley Madison. Don’t give in: the information is already out there for them to find on their own. You may, however, want to limit privacy settings that allow others to access information about your family and other contacts. You should also ignore individuals who claim they can help you remove your email address and other information from the database. This is simply not true — they are only preying on your desperation to be removed.
- Talk to your boss: If your job has a morality clause, your involvement with Ashley Madison may actually get you fired. You should be ready to explain the situation honestly and be upfront about your activity on the site because, again, there is no hiding the truth.
- Let the scandal die: You may have a rough few weeks due to the scandal, but it won’t last forever. Once you’ve taken care of your privacy, career, and personal relationships, the best thing to do is just let it go. Everyone’s talking about it now, but in a month, we’ll all have moved on to something more interesting. Yes, the search engine results may persist, but eventually, you can expect those to die down as well. Return to business as usual, and avoid publishing multiple statements or continuing to talk about the issue, as this will only generate more attention and allow the scandal to persist. Address it, then shut it down and let it die. Don’t fuel the fire.
Moving on from Ashley Madison — And Preventing Scandal in the Future
Letting the scandal die out is a smart move for minimizing the damage to your reputation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to encourage the process. As always, it’s a smart move to work on proactive reputation management that can protect you from further reputation damage as well as reduce the impact of any trouble you may run into in the future.
- Develop a strong digital profile: Search engine links to the Ashley Madison list with your name on it may never go away, but you can certainty make them less prominent by giving Google something more interesting to link to. Work on the basics by developing your own website, maintaining an active blog, and becoming active on major social media websites. You should also focus on developing positive news results with press releases, expert quotes, guest posts, and by reaching out to journalists. This will take time and requires consistency, but it is the most effective way to bury negative results like Ashley Madison news.
- Maintain degrees of separation: If you’re going to use a potentially embarrassing website like Ashley Madison — or if you just want to order hemmorhoid cream online without anyone knowing — consider the information you’re handing over when you create an account or place an order. Using your everyday email address, real phone number, physical address, and other details makes it easy for you to be linked to your online activity. Disposable email addresses and prepaid credit cards will offer more privacy, whatever you’re doing.
- Practice basic privacy maintenance: Use secure passwords and password management tools. Consider using disposable emails and fake names when you don’t really need them, use private browsing and search, and turn on adblockers.
- Don’t use your work email for anything but work: There are more than 1,400 government email addresses with valid Ashley Madison accounts in the United States. There are also hundreds of Ashley Madison users using emails from large tech companies including IBM, HP, Cisco, Apple, and Intel. Big mistake! Why did these people use work email? Probably because spouses don’t usually have access to work accounts — but your boss does, and using Ashley Madison at work can get you in trouble at work, too. Never, ever use your work email for anything private. Keep your own emails separate, as your work email is likely to be far less private than a personal email. Even if it’s not true, it’s best to assume that your boss (and the IT guy or gal) are reading everything you send and receive at work. This doesn’t just have to be for potentially damaging accounts like Ashley Madison, but personal emails with family, financial accounts, and other sensitive details should be kept on a private account.
While there are some gleefully celebrating the comeuppance of adulterers, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re all vulnerable to this kind of attack. Ultimately, the Ashley Madison hack dealt out a harsh lesson for everyone, whether you’re engaged in questionable moral activities or not: it’s safest to assume that nothing is secret. Ashley Madison promised privacy and discretion, and that promise crashed and burned.
Keep in mind that anything — including private accounts — can some day become public. After all, even the Ashley Madison users that paid $20 to delete their accounts were still involved in the hack and had their details revealed. Don’t email or text secrets or embarrassing details, and certainly don’t trust a company like the owners of Ashley Madison with a life altering secret.