Anyone familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘A Scarlet Letter’ will be familiar with the story of Hester Prynne, a married woman who commits adultery in Puritan Boston and ends up pregnant with the pastor’s child. To recompense for her sin, she is forced by the community to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her clothes as a symbol of her guilt. This scarlet letter is essentially a metaphor for shame, as well as physical evidence of a judgment made by others on a lifestyle Hester Prynne chose to pursue.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and it seems adulterers who have used the online service provided by Canadian website, Ashley Madison (with the charming tagline “Life is short. Have an affair”) have been branded with their own scarlet letters, following the publication of their details by hackers. Neither Prynne nor the users of Ashley Madison had any say in their public ‘outing’, as it were – Hester Prynne could not get an abortion and hide her wandering ways from her husband, thanks to the literary age into which she was born, and nor could some of the users of Ashley Madison choose to opt out of having their secret revealed.
Whilst the site was predominantly used by those wishing to cheat on their partners, it is believed that users in homophobic nations used the service as a means of escaping oppressive government regimes regarding their sexual practice. Sky News reported that the hacking has exposed hundreds in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, nations where homosexuality is punishable by death and a five year prison sentence, respectively. It makes you think – is human life really a fair price to pay for a ‘moral victory’ for the hackers?
The Ashley Madison hacking is not receiving anywhere near the same amount of outraged coverage as the Celebrity ‘nudegate’ did, following the uploading of private celebrity photographs to the internet last year. One reason for this is perhaps the principle purpose of the Ashley Madison website – after all, it allows people to commit adultery, which may not be as grave a crime as it was in Puritan times, but is certainly not deemed morally sound practice nowadays.
Responses to the hack I’ve heard include “they got what was coming to them” and “good, they deserve it”, but such responses are a very hypocritical outlook regarding online privacy. I’m sure if these very individuals’ online banking details were leaked there would be outrage, along with lawsuits galore. And, rightly so. When we share personal information over the internet we don’t expect to be branded with a scarlet letter, for all the world to see.
How you choose to live your life is up to you – an individual’s lifestyle should not be determined by a group of hackers. If we condone the leaking of these Ashley Madison users’ personal information, then we begin the descent along a slippery slope. Who is it okay for hackers to leak information about? Politicians? Ex cons? Abortion doctors? Hackers are just bullies, and the internet is a very dangerous playground. Whilst you might not like Ashley Madison users’ lifestyle choices, right now it is important to defend them regardless of your personal moral attitude regarding adultery.
We’re not defending adulterous behaviour, we’re defending an individual’s right to privacy and security of information. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s worth signing up for.
Words by Beth Kirkbride