Public Vice and Private Virtue

21st Aug, 2015

This week has seen the latest instalment of the Ashley Madison saga, which has been steadily rumbling on for the last month. The stories of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange mean that hacking and data leaks have formed an important part of the national security discussion for some time, but this has spurred debate about the impact of the dispersal of highly sensitive financial and personal consumer information. It causes us to question our trust in others, and as people around the world do so, it has the potential to change the collective psyche of consumers.

In 2013 we identified a trend called The New Morality; a post-recessionary phenomenon constituted by a collective decline of deference to figures of authority – whether in government or in business – and a subsequent focus on the boardroom, the result of the seemingly endless emergence of business and institutional scandal from phone hacking to Hillsborough. The shift in attitudes encapsulated by this trend is highly relevant in the wake of another scandal

The ability of these scandals, many of which feel vastly removed from our experience of everyday life, to change the way we think, and the way we live, is clear. What, then, will be the effect on our collective consciousness of a corporate scandal which will go right to the heart – and in my cases, lead to the breakdown – of the lives and relationships of a reported 33 million users globally, 1.2 million of whom reside in the UK? Ashley Madison purported to offer a “100% discreet service”, the backing of a “Trusted Security Award”, as well as the opportunity to carry out a “full delete” of your personal information for a £15 fee, boasts that were ultimately worth very little.

The case of ALM and Ashley Madison is nuanced. The purpose of the website – the arrangement of discreet, extra-marital affairs – means that sympathy for those exposed by the data leak will be hard to come by. The populist notion that the victims of the data leak were in some way deserving of the public shame and ridicule which is sure to come their way could prevent the type of empathy that might ordinarily be a feature of such a scandal.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the value of our data, and consequently far more aware of the precarious situation we find ourselves in when so much of it is stored and increasingly sold. The hack of Ashley Madison may not change the way we think about data security en masse, but it’s likely that the hack of a well-known, consumer-facing business will. When that happens – and it inevitably will – consumers may well be forced to renegotiate the data relationship they have with corporations and service.

In the spirit of the New Morality, they may even charge a fee.