The Impact of the 2015 Data Breach
Tonight, I found myself alone with a glass of wine and my notepad, so I decided to delve into Hulu’s The Ashley Madison Affair, a three-part series that takes a deep dive into Ashley Madison’s stunning crash in 2015.
I watched it solo, not wanting to share the experience with my other half. I didn’t want to have to grunt with disapproval at the appropriate moments. I’d rather cheer for the villains. Why? Because, honestly, I wasn’t surprised that the two jilted women who were cheated on, well, were cheated on.
Ladies, really? How about giving the man a reason to stay home? But I digress.
As I watched, I scribbled notes and sipped chardonnay. My own experience with Ashley Madison, or AM as we wanton sluts like to call it, began in 2018. I was aware of the cybersecurity issues and the infamous data breach. As it was unfolding, I felt a tinge of regret. I knew I wanted an affair. I’d been sexless for six years by then but wasn’t quite there in 2015.
When I turned to AM, I researched them. I figured that if they were still in business, they must have sorted out their security issues. I also wasn’t worried about having to chat with one of the 1000s of fembots as the boys did, so I dove in, found someone, and we’re still together five years later.
It couldn’t have turned out better.
Was I really interested in the hack? No. But I was interested in this series because I helped the producers contact two ladies: our very own
! Both of whom The Scarlett Letter readers know well. I was happy to help but wasn’t interested in revealing my identity. And I have to say, the actresses chosen to represent both ladies were lovely — just as I picture our dear friends.
The Rise of Ashley Madison: A Journey into Infidelity
Episode I — The King of Infidelity
The series begins with a scorned wife, setting the tone for the controversial subject matter to follow. We’re introduced to Noel Biderman, the CEO of Ashley Madison, whose marketing program was bold and in your face. It was brilliant. He suggests that disgraced NY Governor Spitzer, caught in a prostitution scandal, should have used Ashley Madison to avoid detection.
The narrative then shifts to Mona, who found herself happily overwhelmed by the attention she received from men on the platform. I can tell you one glass of water looks good after wandering in the desert for a decade or two. But do you know what looks better?
Twenty glasses of water.
This episode focuses on the “before the hack.” The golden days of the site and its growth from 2002 onward.
A big part of it was the company’s audacious advertising strategy, characterized by billboards and talk shows, is explored, revealing humor as a core element of their approach. Biderman, making the rounds on the talk show circuit and points out to incredulous audiences everywhere a simple truth –
People cheated long before Ashley Madison, and will long after it’s gone.
And that’s what I tell people when they ask why I help cheaters— they’re going to do it anyway, so why not help them do it better to save the heartache?
By 2010, Ashley Madison boasts 7 million users, a number that skyrockets to 33 million by 2015, with 4 million of those being women. However, the legitimacy of these female profiles is called into question, with accusations of fake accounts being created to lure in male users. Despite this, the company continues to thrive, even purchasing and shutting down a highly critical website called AshleyMadisonSucks.com, which was drawing unwanted attention to the platform’s flaws.
The Downfall: Ashley Madison’s Data Breach and Its Impact
Episode II — Cheaters Beware
The second episode delves into Ashley Madison’s international expansion, focusing on Tokyo, where the platform gains 1 million users in less than a year. However, not all ventures were as successful, as seen in Seoul, Korea, where cheating was illegal. The site was shut down in two weeks, leading to an AM lawsuit against the government. The government relented, changed the law, and AM was back up and running within months.
What is clear was the appetite for stepping out boomed with the advent of the iPhone. Credited with AM’s exponential growth, Apple helpfully eliminated the need to clear browser histories and for sneaky computer use late at night.
I would chat with guys while watching TV. Hub and kids in the room. I’d write dirty nasty things and get sexy pics back that would make me soaking wet, all while playing happy families on a Sunday night.
My new secret life was dirty, thrilling, and fun.
Despite this success, the company faced challenges when attempting an IPO in 2015 due to a lack of support from prudish North American bankers. They were valuing themselves between $500M and $1B and were hoping to cash in. They were working on a London Stock Exchange Deal when things suddenly went south for AM.
The episode takes a dark turn when The Impact Team, a group of hackers, threatens to expose the site’s user data unless it is shut down. They gave AM 30 days. They didn’t ask for money — they only wanted the site to shut down.
Spoiler alert — it didn’t.
A number of security flaws were discovered, including a paid delete feature that supposedly allows users to erase their profiles for $19.99. It made millions but was ultimately useless. The Impact Team reveals that this feature is ineffective, but more likely because they’d been inside AM for over a year.
The ultimatum ended with the release of user data on August 18, 2015, leading to public humiliation, job losses, and even suicides among the exposed users.
The Aftermath and Resurgence of Ashley Madison
Episode III — Dirty Secrets
The final episode exposes the truth behind Ashley Madison’s operations. The company is sued by an employee for causing her carpal tunnel syndrome due to the creation of 1000 fake profiles. Although the lawsuit is dismissed, the hack reveals that her claims were valid. At one point, they were making 10,000 women’s files a week.
The problem was they weren’t answering the men back. That’s pretty common, as I don’t return all my messages, but this was next-level highway robbery. Then, all of a sudden, one man reported getting the same message from five or six women –
“Hello, I caught your profile and think I might be interested in meeting you…”
Obviously, he knew something was up. With AI today, you’d probably never know, but back then? Things were a little sad.
Biderman’s work emails were also hacked, and it’s revealed that he, too is implicated in his own personal scandal. His emails suggested he was not as monogamous as he claimed to be but instead preferred young escorts over the sweet-ass MILFs of AM.
Following these revelations, and the hack, of course, Biderman resigns and is never heard from again. AM puts a $500,000 bounty is placed on the hackers, but it gets them nowhere.
What episode three clearly shows is that, while the hack was bad, it didn’t kill the company. Despite the scandal, Ashley Madison recovered, even growing its user base to 71 million by 2021.
The company paid an $11.2 million settlement in 2017 to a class-action lawsuit filed by 18 users (watch to find out why it was only 18 in the class, but I’m sure you’d guess) and a $1.6 million fine following an FTC investigation. Ashley Madison continues to operate and adapt to changing societal norms around relationships and infidelity.
What did I think?
Overall, I hoped to hear more about why women cheat than the hack. Why? We all know how the story ends before watching the first episode — AM survived. All things considered, the hack wasn’t much more than a bump on the road, and thank god. I don’t know what I would have done without AM
I think there was too much focus on the hack and not the reason why people used AM. We all get that people are hurt by cheating, but I was expecting them to ask the obvious questions — why do men and women chat? We all know getting cheated on feels shitty, but why do we do it?
That’s the story.
My biggest takeaway was that there was a lot of self-righteous laughter and sentiment in the summer of 2015 and afterward — for nothing. I’m sure I laughed too, but was destroying the lives of families and children worth it? Not when you consider AM is going strong today.
And The Impact Team? They were never found.
The Ashley Madison Affair is a three-part series that delves into the infamous 2015 cyber breach of Ashley Madison. It debuted on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in Canada in July 2023.