Infidelity website Ashley Madison has been hacked and millions of users' details are up for grabs
Infidelity website Ashley Madison has been hacked and millions of users' details are up for grabs
A view from Amy Kean

Ashley Madison hack: life is short, stop trusting computers

As we approach 'The Singularity' should we be blaming humans or computers for failing the public and who even is the victim? asks Amy Kean,...

Day after day, we place our trust in machines, codes, algorithms, websites and search engines without addressing the risk

A few weeks ago something very significant happened - a robot killed a human. In what Singularity fanboys and girls heralded as the beginning of the end, we read on in dread as it was confirmed that the cause of the accident - in which a machine in a Volkswagen plant grabbed a worker and crushed his throat against a wall - was human error. The robot had been programmed by humans, the plant spokesperson said. The robot's only task was to manipulate metal parts. Yet prosecutors still aren’t sure who to press charges against.

Consumer tolerance to data usage is increasing

Blame and error aside, I’m no car manufacturing expert but that must have been some pretty feisty machine to be capable of killing a human in the first place, with strength (you would imagine) that drastically outperforms the fallible combination of bones and skin. Yet it was trusted. Day after day, we place our trust in machines, codes, algorithms, websites and search engines without addressing the risk. We think nothing of typing our deepest darkest fantasies into a computer (for me, that’s normally just entering my name into the Google homepage) without taking one more second to consider the consequences. Consumer tolerance of data usage and personalisation is increasing: depending on what study you read, up to two thirds of consumers would now feel better about a brand if it provides a personalised experience relevant to them and their interests.

If there’s anything the internet’s taught us, it’s that human interests are pretty diverse

And if there’s anything the internet’s taught us, it’s that human interests are pretty diverse.

Take Ashley Madison, for example. The extramarital dating site that’s recently been hacked, sending its 37 million members into an absolute frenzy with the risk of trillions of the data points – including card details, use history and ‘likes’ – being made public. A lot of stories have popped up over the last 24 hours addressing the motives (the hackers, Team Impact, don’t like the fee that comes with deletion of a profile, apparently) but for me this story is almost too good to be true. Because you can’t quite pinpoint who the victims are. It’s not the hackers – hackers are cool and mysterious. It’s not the cheaters because they’re horrible people. And it’s certainly not the website because they came up with this godawful website in the first place and are making money from adulterous data.  There seems to a delicious irony in the fact that a platform based on infidelity has betrayed the betrayers.

I'm calling publicity stunt

It’s definitely not a good PR exercise for ‘the internet’ because once again trust in the medium has suffered

So I’m calling ‘publicity stunt.’ Hacking generally generates a host of attention. Take The Interview – a pretty average film that was released last year that because of hacks saw one of the most impressive digital UGC campaigns in history. How powerful that the online audience could get behind a piece of work that it hadn’t even seen? I’m just not sure who’s behind the publicity stunt, yet.

It’s definitely not a good PR exercise for ‘the internet’ because once again trust in the medium has suffered. But perhaps it’s healthy to continue to treat the web with caution? I remember when I first started working in digital – people didn’t want to buy things from websites, convinced that everything they did was tracked and that 1984 was coming true. (Although just as an aside I don’t think I know anyone that’s actually read 1984).

We are too trusting

It’s important to remember that they’re still powered by money-making organisations that can benefit hugely from sharing your personal data

The fact is we’re not being followed everywhere we go but we ARE too trusting, which is what makes the Ashley Madison story so believable. After the cloud was hacked and a number of famous women had to suffer their saucy snaps being shared amongst the Reddit population and then the wider web, some of comments – whether rightly or wrongly – questioned these celebrities’ trust of a big digital depositary that they almost certainly didn’t understand. What is it about the adrenaline rush of sharing private information or organising unethical rendezvous that makes us believe the internet – as a whole - is a safe and trusting place? Why would we share this information with a website, but almost certainly not a random man on the street?

Machines, codes, algorithms may be perfectly innocent, but it’s important to remember that they’re still powered by money-making organisations that can benefit hugely from sharing your personal data.

So until the Singularity actually occurs and robots are clever enough to programme themselves, when we’re dealing with private and personal information or sensitive situations, we should always take a second to consider the possibility of human error.