Digital & Technology

After the Ashley Madison Hack, Can Online Encounters Stay the Course?

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The hack of infidelity website Ashley Madison was a shock on several levels. For starters, it was massive, seizing 300GB of data on the site's 37 million users. Secondly, it exposed Ashley Madison for (ironically) cheating users who paid $19 to have all of their account information wiped clean from their database — an action the website never took. Thirdly, the nature of this hack was unprecedented. Unlike other headline-grabbing hacks — like the leak of Sony employee email or financial info of eBay users — the Ashley Madison hack was entirely focused on exposing users' personal lives, specifically their extramarital sexual and romantic activity and interest. This type of personal invasion is not something that victims can recover from by simply cancelling a compromised credit card. This hack ruined and even took lives.

It raises the question: in a world where the online dating industry is valued at $2B, holding a wide swath of personal information on a whopping 91 million users globally, will a hack like this happen again? And how should online daters protect themselves?

Motivation for hack

Before you rush to delete any or all of your online dating profiles, take comfort in the following: among all romantic encounter sites, Ashley Madison was targeted for a very explicit reason. Hackers expressed their disapproval of Ashley Madison not for facilitating affairs but for its dubious practice of allegedly creating fake female profiles and boasting false gender ratio statistics to lure in male users. According to CEO Noel Biderman, Ashley Madison has a 70/30 gender split across all users and an impressive 1:1 ratio among users 30 and younger. But analysis of the released records paints quite a different picture: 28 million males users versus only 5 million female users, a mere 14 percent.

The hackers also took issue with Ashley Madison's “full delete" service—a promise to wipe a user's account details from the database for a charge of $19. This service generated $1.7M in revenue but — as proven by the hack — never fulfilled its commitment to fully delete user data.

Ultimately, the hackers were determined to destroy Ashley Madison at the expense of its users, who they viewed as secondary victims. "It was ALM [Ashley Madison's parent company] that failed you and lied to you," the hackers wrote. "Prosecute them and claim damages. Then move on with your life. Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you'll get over it."

Scamming versus hacking

Given the hackers' detailed motivations for targeting Ashley Madison, it's unlikely that the entire online dating industry has become more vulnerable to the same type of hack. In fact, users are much more likely to fall victim to a scam from the dating sites themselves than from outside hackers. In order to lure more premium users, several dating sites — small and large — have been guilty of creating fake profiles.

In 2014, the UK-based company JDI Dating Ltd, which owns 18 online dating sites, came under fire for creating fake profiles and automated bots that sweet-talked users into becoming premium members. Luckily for JDI's 12 million users, the US Federal Trade Commission exposed the scam and not vigilante hackers. Online dating giant and pioneer Match.com is also guilty of the deceitful practice. In 2013, a woman filed a $1.5B class-action lawsuit against Match.com for allegedly using her photographs to create fake profiles without her knowledge or consent. “Not a day goes by when someone doesn't tell me that they saw my pictures posted on Match.com or another web site," plaintiff Yuliana Avalos told the New York Post.

Online dating rebounds fast

If any industry can bounce back from a hack or scamming scandal, it's online dating. Not only has it weathered the financial crisis, growing 3.5 percent a year since 2008 to reach a value of $2.1 billion, but it's also achieved a rare success: it changed consumer behavior.

With the launch of Match.com in 1995, online dating has irrevocably disrupted the way we interact sexually and romantically. According to a Pew Research Center report, attitude towards online dating is steadily improving, and one in ten Americans adults have used either an online dating site or a mobile dating app. In a Time Out survey, 60 percent of online daters worldwide say that online dating is the best way to get dates in terms of absolute numbers.

The opportunities for users and investors alike are fruitful. The ecosystem is rife with 3,900 companies running dating sites, with a projection of an additional hundred companies per year over the next four years. Whether you're among the estimated 50 million Tinder users or prefer a more niche dating pool, like Gluten Free Singles, there's something for everyone.

Proceed with caution

Online dating isn't just an industry anymore, but a culture. If you want to participate in it without compromising your privacy, simply use discretion when it comes to interacting with other users. You're likelier to encounter online dating scammers phishing for your bank info than sophisticated hackers who want to publicly shame you.

That said, public shaming is also a viable threat. After all, your online dating profile is viewable to millions of other users and contains public information that can be mined in a search. It doesn't take savvy hacker skills to expose this information. For example, when America's most hated hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli made headlines for price gouging a life-saving drug, the media combed the Internet for more dirt on him. As a result, they not only published quotes from Shkreli's OKCupid profile, but one writer at Mic.com, Eve Peyser, covertly made contact with Shkreli on Tinder and published their off-the-record exchange for all to see.

Moral of the story? Consider updating your profile with a username that protects your real identity and use discretion the next time you “favorite" or “swipe right" on someone. Chances are they won't hack or publicly shame you, but better safe than sorry.