Ashley Madison data breach may undermine privacy for everyone

The Ashley Madison breach could harm more than the would-be adulterers whose personal information was leaked online – it could undermine privacy for all of us, technology columnist Ramona Pringle argues.

Do those with nothing to hide really have nothing to fear?

The data breach at the infidelity dating site Ashley Madison could harm more than just would-be adulterers whose names, phone numbers, addresses, email addresses, payment information and other details were leaked online, says Ramona Pringle. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

No doubt, a lot of people are holding their breaths today. The personal information of more than 32 million Ashley Madison users has been posted for the world to see, a month after hackers claimed to have breached the infidelity dating site.

But the breach could harm more than just would-be adulterers whose names, phone numbers, addresses, email addresses, payment information and other details were leaked online.

While we don't know how this will all play out for those identified by the hackers, we do know this story is sure to fan the flames of the ongoing privacy debate.

The key argument of the pro-transparency faction is: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

In the case of this news story the reasoning would be: "See, if you're not having an affair, why are you so concerned with who sees what you're doing online?"

That argument equates privacy with hiding or secrecy, but privacy does not equal secrecy; privacy equals control.

As Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner and founder of Privacy by Design explained to me in an interview earlier this week: "The only individual who can make the decision of what they wish to disclose is the person themselves."

The danger with flashy stories like the Ashley Madison breach is that they equate privacy with secrecy, as opposed to equating it with freedom, personal choice and dignity in so many areas of our lives and careers.

U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden said in a public Q & A on Reddit: "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."

The Ashley Madison hack does a disservice to more people than just the ones whose identities were leaked. The danger is that it sets the privacy battle back a few steps.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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