Analysis Some readers of the Register – or perhaps their spouses or significant others, or their bosses or colleagues or other people who may think they want to know if someone is "trustworthy" – may have heard that it is now possible to search online for evidence that a person may have been using the website Ashley Madison. Some users of that site may have been hypothetically considering possibly having an extramarital or otherwise illicit affair, though the mere fact of a person being registered with the site does not, of course, indicate any such thing.
As a professional journalist seeking to inform all of my many readers I have now researched this matter thoroughly, and I have compiled some authoritative and technically solid advice for anyone who might be thinking of looking at the data leaked from the site. Here are the points that all of my readers need to consider before taking such a step.
1. Your Computer Will Almost Certainly Get Infected With A Virus If You Do
This is an unfortunate, but true, fact. Most websites purporting to have the Ashley Madison data available for download or search are in fact fakes set up by cyber criminals. Even clicking through to such a site from a Google search is nearly certain to infect your computer with serious malware that could harvest your bank account codes, credit card details and all your personal data, download masses of offensive pornography onto your machine without your knowledge, use it for illegal peer-to-peer sharing of pirated files and plunge you into a lifelong identity-theft nightmare. For this reason alone it is extremely unwise even to go looking for the Ashley Madison data.
2. Just Searching The Data Could Add Your Name To An Online List Of Likely Ashley Madison Users
It sounds crazy, but it's true. Large numbers of unscrupulous companies are offering webpages or sites which purportedly allow you to search through what they say is the leaked Ashley Madison data. But they themselves will log your details as you use their service, and put these details on a list, which of course can then in turn appear on the internet.
This would then inevitably lead people seeing you on that list to assume you were checking whether your details were on Ashley Madison, and to assume you have a guilty conscience. Even if a search service appears to take no personal details from you, it will almost certainly be logging your "IP address" and placing "cookies" on your computer. This will inevitably reveal you to the world as a guilty Ashley Madison user even if you had never even heard of the website before the recent media firestorm.
Be safe – be sure – simply don't even click on any site or service that claims to allow access to the Ashley Madison data.
3. The Mere Fact That Someone's Details Are In The Ashley Madison Data Means Absolutely Nothing At All
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people whose details were held by Ashley Madison had absolutely no intention whatever of having any sort of illicit affair. Many profiles were created using people's details – for instance their names, photographs nude and/or dressed, email addresses etc – without their knowledge by other persons for a huge variety of reasons.
These things are easily harvested from the internet. Even where someone's credit card details are found in the Ashley Madison data, in almost all cases those card numbers will have been stolen by criminals – perhaps by hacking a completely legitimate online store or other website – and used fraudulently without the owner's knowledge.
Even where this has not occurred and someone appears to have really registered with the site of their own volition, again this means nothing. Most Ashley Madison users were motivated by innocent curiosity: and in many cases they may have had no interest in having an affair but instead bona-fide work reasons to be registered with the site.
This is especially true of professional journalists, the great majority of whom were registered with the site in order to do essential research into prospective articles on web security, lifestyle features or literally dozens of other valid journalism areas.
It's important to be aware that such articles often take a long time to prepare, or may be rejected by editors, or for many other journalism reasons will probably not have actually been published prior to the Ashley Madison hack – but nonetheless a good deal of valid work-related research will normally have been carried out on the site.