The ‘disgusting’ Ashley Madison exposed: The impossibility of secrecy, and the promise of forgiveness

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I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:

“Disgusting”

I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.

“Disgusting”

We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.

This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:

“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.

It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?

If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?

“Disgusting.”

It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?

What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?

It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.

“Disgusting.”

I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.

“Disgusting.”

I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).

“Disgusting.”

For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.

But so am I.

“DISGUSTING”

And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.

And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.

I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.

What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.

The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28

In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3

When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.

That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.

King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).

Disgusting.

And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12

I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.

The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-20

Why I welcome the new Instagram Terms of Service

If everybody leaves there will be less pictures of cats, and food I don’t care about.

Leaving more room for my photos of coffee…

… and my daughter…

 

…and my wife.

But mostly of coffee…

But seriously. I like Instagram.

Its social networking meets fauxtography nature is perfect for producing the picture content for my coffee blog. Its hashtagability means it’s perfect for pulling together real time user-generated picture content at an event.

Liking Instagram means I want Instagram to survive. Especially now they have great web profiles. Instagram surviving means they have to make money.

How did people think they were going to do that if not through the content that we produce using their app, and store on their databases, with all sorts of great metadata and user generated responses to brands and places. That’s where the value in their service is, so it makes sense that that’s where they’ll try to become profitable.

Instagram says things aren’t as bad as the interwebs made out anyway, and The Verge has a great piece showing what they can and can’t do, legally speaking.

This Funny or Die response is probably my favourite.

Should you “friend” your parents on Facebook: Flowchart

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My parents are on Facebook. Are yours? I had no problem friending mine. My theory on privacy is “don’t do anything in public you don’t want God/your parents finding out about”…

But for those of you not so comfortable with your parents tracking your every escapade, I give you:

From Cool Material.

Wikileaks: Of dams and fingers

So, the Wikileaks saga drags on. At least Oprah is gone from our shores…

The whole Wikileaks thing kind of fascinates me. It’s the archetypal immovable object up against the irresistable force. Freedom of speech (particularly of the press) and a desire for transparent government meets public safety, national interests and diplomacy. Chuck in an Australian with a God complex and a stated desire to change the way governments do business, a few tortured souls willing to sacrifice life, limb and well being in order to leak classified documents they’ve obtained illegally… it’s got all the hallmarks of a follow up to the Social Network – the UnSocial Network.

Part of me thinks transparent government is a good thing. Part of me is fascinated by the trainwreck as governments respond to the saga – Julia Gillard’s uninformed “this is illegal” is one such example. And doubtless it presents problems for governments involved – we’re not talking cynical dictators here, but democratically elected representatives who are trying to serve their people. Leaking information is reprehensible – it’s not up to a lowly member of the military to decide what state secrets come out, and it’s doubtless against their employment contracts (and of course, treasonous). Some information is dangerous. And a dangerous world is likely to require dangerous information – information that shouldn’t necessarily be broadcast to everybody, the problem with the Assange model is that it draws no distinction about who should receive what information. Which is naive. Why should Al Qaeda have access to the same information as the average American citizen about how the American government operates? That makes no sense. It’s not as though governments aren’t thinking about transparency themselves – they just err on the side of caution when it comes to disseminating information. Wikileaks errs on the side of stupidity.

The press has always been free to publish fruit from a poisonous tree – provided it’s in the public interest. And I reckon wikileaks, broadly speaking, falls into that category. They’re not stealing the documents themselves, hacking databases or surreptitiously accessing information from behind iron curtains – they’re simply a distributor. But a distributor with an agenda. Just like Fox. So while I reckon the leakers are in the wrong, I think it sets a dangerous precedent to go after the distribution channel rather than the leaker. Wikleaks simply represents the new media’s style of distribution. Too the masses, for the masses, by the masses. The “information is power” equation functions on the law of diminishing returns. More information available to more people doesn’t mean more power. It just robs power from those who previously held it. It’s diluted. In a lot of ways it’s better that the information is available to everybody than that it’s available to a select few on the black market. That’s part of having a free press and a commitment, in principle, to democracy. It’s one thing for Julian Assange to speak of getting rid of the US’s stranglehold on politcal power globally – but what do you replace it with? He’s a typical anarchist in some sense – he doesn’t seem interested in the future, just in displacing the present.

Attempts to control information in this day and age is like standing in front of a cracking dam wall and plugging the gap with you finger. It won’t work. And you’re going to get smashed when the wall cracks. I think that’s what this has taught me. I’d say governments are better off just aiming for complete transparency. The idea of not doing anything you’re ashamed of is as old as debates about privacy. But it works. If governments were more open to freedom of information requests and being transparent then there’d be less chance of damage happening through leaks. Give the people a torrent and it’s likely that bad news would be buried in the sheer volume – and when it surfaces you can always acknowledge that it was there and say “that’s why we’re making this information available”… the Internet is changing the way information can be disseminated and the management of the leaks, from a PR/news cycle perspective has also been interesting. It seems Julian Assange has no real editorial brain. He hasn’t done a great job at managing the flow of information, the bang to buck ratio is poor. Pushing a glut of information out there at once is guaranteed to bury some of the good stuff. Even if you pick a few strategic articles to promote the release by giving juicy exclusives to particular outlets. His strategy has been bad. His personal strategy has been pretty bad too – even though he’s won over a few celebrity campaigners who have adopted him as a cause de jour. The Swedish claims seem a little bit too convenient – but the man does appear to be a bit of a self-interested slimeball with delusions of grandeur.

Here are some good wikileaks articles for your perusal:

The Ugley Vicar considers the motivations behind Assange’s program. Including this quote about the function of wikileaks:

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

The Guardian, a mainstream paper who were the beneficiaries of some of Assange’s leaks asks questions about the motivation behind them and the changes the leaks might bring.

The Economist points out that wikileaks is just the tip of the iceberg, or rather, an example of how easily information can spread in the Internet – suggesting that plugging this leak won’t stop the dam bursting:

“Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps—as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto. But I don’t think the matter can end this way. Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into the private lives of individuals, it has also made it easier for individuals, working alone or together, to root through and make off with the secret files of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks is simply an early manifestation of what I predict will be a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping.”

Here’s an hour long documentary on Wikileaks that you can watch at your leisure.

BoingBoing argues that Wikileaks is a member of the press and should be afforded the same protections.

After PayPal, MasterCard, and other financial institutions went after Assange and Wikileaks – 4Chan struck back for the internet, launching DoS attacks on their servers.

I’ll watch the inevitable movie though. So what do you reckon – is Assange a hero or a villain?

Banning social media a band-aid solution

The Penrith Panthers have joined a bunch of other major sporting teams (including Manchester United) in banning their players from having a presence on popular social networks Twitter and Facebook. I can’t see, from a branding point of view, how this is a good thing for the club – surely having the players use these mediums productively, for the benefit of fans, would be a more beneficial long term strategy.

There is, of course, the danger of players being people. Being a bit too human. Airing dirty laundry. Or, doing what LeBron James just famously did in the U.S – using the medium to generate buzz around their playing future and leveraging up their salary and status. I can see why clubs would want to stop that sort of behaviour.

But the Panthers say they are doing this to “protect the players” essentially from themselves. Here’s what the Panthers have said about the policy (from FoxSports):

“We don’t want our players using these social networking websites. They are an invasion of privacy. They can be dangerous.”

Well, not really, they’re not an invasion of privacy but a forum where you can voluntarily make parts of your life unprivate. Nobody is questioning the capacity for these platforms to be misused. But dangerous? Not really.

Brisbane seem to have a more measured (and reasonable) approach:

“The Broncos have added a clause to their code of conduct that states any player posting a detrimental comment on Facebook or Twitter could be fined or suspended.”

My former employers had a policy along similar lines – with instructions not to engage in narky online flamewars (a paraphrase) we were to participate in online discussion in good humour, while recognising privacy and confidentiality concerns.

The FoxSports story, I think, hits the nail on the head when it comes to the motives of these moves:

“NRL clubs are deeply concerned about what players post in their status bar and whether their party photos are a “bad look”.”

It’s ultimately not about player safety – but about managing the NRL’s brand. And at this point I think the heavy handed “no go” social media policy is treating symptoms of the problem rather than its root cause. If players weren’t doing anything (in public, or private) that could be posted online in an embarrassing way – then there wouldn’t be a problem. Keeping the players off Facebook doesn’t stop photos being put up, nor does it stop those photos being sent to a journalist.

The real key to not damaging your brand via social networks is to not be doing stuff that would damage your brand. That’s where clubs should be directing their energy and attention.

There’s a further danger, which this story picks up, of players not present on Facebook being impersonated by people with less than optimal intentions. Apparently it’s happening with superstar Jarryd Hayne right now – and previously it has been an issue on Twitter for people like Kanye West (who apparently joined up just to avoid being impersonated). You can read his expletive laden all-caps tirade at Twitter impersonators from last May here at TechCrunch (I can’t find it on his actual blog)…

“THE PEOPLE AT TWITTER KNOW I DON’T HAVE A #%$@@# TWITTER SO FOR THEM TO ALLOW SOMEONE TO POSE AS ME AND ACCUMULATE OVER A MILLION NAMES IS IRRESPONSIBLE AND DECEITFUL TO THERE FAITHFUL USERS. REPEAT… THE HEADS OF TWITTER KNEW I DIDN’T HAVE A TWITTER AND THEY HAVE TO KNOW WHICH ACCOUNTS HAVE HIGH ACTIVITY ON THEM… IT MAKES ME QUESTION WHAT OTHER SO CALLED CELEBRITY TWITTERS ARE ACTUALLY REAL OR FAKE. HEY TWITTER, TAKE THE SO CALLED KANYE WEST TWITTER DOWN NOW …. WHY? … BECAUSE MY CAPS LOCK KEY IS LOUD!!!!!!!!!”