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3 legal implications of the Ashley Madison hack

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 02 September 2015
  2. Family
  3. 0 comments

The world is abuzz following the hacking of infidelity dating site Ashley Madison. The site, run by Canadian firm Avid Life Media, invited married people to “have an affair” on the grounds that “life is short”.

However, many who attempted to take them up on that offer are at risk of being exposed to their partners, as well as anyone else who might know them, thanks to the stealing and subsequent leaking of personal details of everyone who ever signed up to the site.

Here are a few legal consequences coming out of the hack.

Membership of Ashley Madison could be grounds for divorce

It’s unlikely that the site actually led as many couplings as their signup numbers would suggest – the leaked data seems to indicate that only around 15% of the users described themselves as female, and that the vast majority of those 5.5 million women either never used the site or were never really even alive.

Based on that math, it’s likely that the site had a lot of disappointed (heterosexual) users.

However, could signing up to the site be grounds for divorce, even if the would-be adulterer never actually went through with his or her intention to cheat?

It wouldn’t be enough for a partner to get a divorce on the grounds of adultery – a partner can only be divorced for adultery if they have engaged in sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex.

However, this evidence of intended adultery could allow you to get a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. Divorce lawyers have already been getting enquiries based on details gleaned from the hack.

Some users could face the death penalty

Some reacted to the hack with glee, feeling no sympathy for any consequences an adulterer might face. However, for some users now exposed, the consequences could be very dire indeed.

Around 1,200 of the email addresses in the database appear to belong to users based in Saudi Arabia, as they use the Saudi .sa suffix.

Adultery is a criminal offence in Saudi Arabia, and offenders can face imprisonment, flogging, or even the death penalty. Other countries under Islamic rule, such as Pakistan, have similarly punitive sentences for adultery.

While these are extreme examples, adultery as a criminal offence is more common than you might think. Adultery is a criminal offence in over half of US states, with offenders in Michigan potentially facing up to a year in the clink.

Those serving in the US military could face disciplinary action regardless of where they live, as several thousand email addresses on the database used the .mil suffix, violating Pentagon rules on use of military email accounts. Committing adultery is also a violation of the US Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Adulterers aren’t the only ones who could face capital punishment. A number of gay people in countries where homosexuality is illegal, including Saudi Arabia, used Ashley Madison to meet other men discreetly.

One man posted on amoral social aggregation site Reddit that he had used Ashley Madison for this purpose while studying in America, relying on the site’s reputation for discretion. The leak puts that man, and potentially many others, in grave danger.

Ashley Madison could be sued into oblivion

Unsurprisingly, Avid Life Media and Ashley Madison are already facing litigation for their failure to prevent the leak of their data.

As well as failing to keep users’ data safe, it appears that the company also misled users over a “permanent delete” service, which promised to completely scrub a user’s data for a fee. However, the leak seems to indicate that this service failed to remove everything, meaning that these users are just as vulnerable as everyone else.

Anonymous litigants in a number of US states, including California, Missouri and Texas, have launched class action lawsuits, while another man has launched a class action lawsuit in Canada, on behalf of all Canadians who had used the site.

Lawyers are warning that UK litigants won’t be far behind.

“Ashley Madison also faces the possibility of civil claims from subscribers who may wish to hold it to account for promises made with regards to anonymity and data protection,” says Tim Smith, partner at law firm BLM.

Luke Scanlon from Pinsent Masons says that users in the UK could have a case due to the distress caused by the hack.

"The interesting thing about this incident is that recent court decisions in the UK have been leaning towards the view that a claim can be brought when no financial loss occurs, but where a person experiences distress as a result of a data breach,” he said.

He added that it could spell doom for Ashley Madison, due to the sheer cost of compensating so many users.

"In the case of Ashley Madison, which is reported has 1.2million subscribers in the UK alone, if each were to try to claim for £1000 in compensation Ashley Madison could see itself incurring costs of up to £1.2 billion,” he said.

“Even if claims for distress in this case are modest, the sheer volume of data breached and individuals affected in this attack could have a critical impact on the company.”

However, it’s not guaranteed that many users will want to come out and sue the company – after all, the prospect of having to out yourself as an Ashley Madison user by suing the company will not sound appealing to everyone.

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