An Affair to Remember?

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember” (1957). Source: https://goo.gl/2vwUTs.

A mysterious online message reading, “Hey Noel, you can admit it’s real now” may be unlikely to immediately instil fear into many of us non-Noels. However, as of this afternoon, things have got more than a little uncomfortable for Avid Life Media’s CEO, Noel Biderman, and quite possibly 37.5 million other individuals across the world.

Following today’s breaking news, Noel Biderman will most probably be feeling decidedly uneasy about having his private emails, and possibly even his site’s source code laid bare (pun-slightly-intended) in the form of a 20GB+ data dump. Yet, he finds himself in the good company of the millions of current and former registered users of his company’s “discreet encounters” matchmaking site, AshleyMadison.com, who similarly found their personal data splashed across the Internet as of Tuesday this week.

As arguably the biggest (or at very least, the most salacious) consumer privacy breach for some time, it is likely that you, dearest CaSMa blog reader, may already be aware of the ongoing stand-off  between Avid Life Media and the “The Impact Team” group of hackers, since initial warnings shots were fired in late July. If you are not familiar with the story, Alex Hurn of The Guardian has an excellent summary here. If even this is a little TL;dr (“Too Long, Didn’t Read” for you non-web geeks), then the following could be considered an even briefer summary:

Last month, a group of hackers (“The Impact Team”) illegally accessed “adultery site” AshleyMadison.com, stealing customer data (names, addresses, credit card details, etc) and threatened to dump the file online for public access if the site wasn’t shut down by the site’s owner AvidLifeMedia (ALM). Refusal from ALM led to The Impact Team follow through on their threats on Tuesday, with further “proof” of the authenticity of the data provided today by seemingly releasing even more details relating to the CEO and the site’s code.

Of course, this is heavily simplified interpretation but that is the gist of the situation as it appears at present (more details of the initial threat is provided in the image below, although beware for some NSFW hacker language).

The Impact Team’s original manifesto. Source: @deuszu.

Now, if the ensuing stampede to identify public figures from the data within some sections of the media has had the feel of a fascinatingly macabre gold rush, the seemingly throwaway line in a recent BBC article of “it is now being pored over by security researchers” perhaps hints at an uneasy possibility within the academic research community. Namely…

How long until we see academic research papers presented at conferences, or published in journals, based upon an analyses of these datasets?

If this seems a rather flippant suggestion, then consider some potential parallels with some of the more, erm, “ethically contentious” big data studies in recent years.

The Ashley Madison data is (now) available in the public domain. Reporting of findings could (at least attempt to) maintain the anonymity of data-points by analysing only data referring to ages, location, sexual mores, attempts at deletion, and so on. It could be argued that the vast amounts of data may provide a unique insight into a taboo and typically closely-guarded human behaviour that would otherwise be difficult to study and be of academic value. Researchers could even *technically* (note, I never said ethically…) seek informed consent from potential participants using those handily supplied email addresses…

Of course, if you have been following our posts on the CaSMa blog, you will understand the numerous ways in which our perspective on social media research ethics is diametrically opposed to the possibility that any such research could be conducted in an ethical manner (hint: illegally obtained data tends not to make for ethical social media research; citizen-centric or otherwise).

And yet… How much would you be willing to bet against the possibility of scanning down your heavily dog-eared *Unnamed Social Media Conference 2016* programme next summer and resting your gaze upon a mildly interesting talk, nestled right there at 2.15pm in Room 101…

“An Affair to Remember: A Massive Online Study of Big Mistakes and Even Huger Regret Amongst Exposed Ashley Madison Users”

 

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