By Logan Quirk
What does the Ashley Madison hack tell us about online privacy?
Most people are familiar with the story regarding the hack/data leak connected to the online cheating website known as Ashley Madison. For the most part, the interest has centered on the information that was dumped online and the different people that may get caught-up in the scandal. As interesting as that side of the story may be as a form of tabloid fodder, there are other issues that come into play. These issues concern the level of privacy that a person can expect when they use the internet and what his or her rights may be when information that they considered private enters the public sphere.
What Am I getting myself into???
When it comes to online privacy, you may be surprised to find out how little privacy a person is entitled to when they go online. Just by accessing most websites, you are giving up information about who you are and what you do when you are online. When you open a page, the website knows your IP address and they may install cookies on your computer that are designed to collect information about the user and their online activity.
Beyond that, you also have the situations where you knowingly provide information to a website. You sign-up for a service or buy a product and to get access, you then provide information like your name, age, address, credit card number and phone number. Most people just take it for granted that this information is safe and that someone will be held responsible if they suffer some form of loss or damage as the result of this information being stolen and released.
Let the Litigation Begin
In regard to the information that you may provide a website in order to access services, the picture is somewhat complicated and the situation surrounding the Ashley Madison data breach may actually help to clear things up. Shortly after the user data was released online, people started filing lawsuits against the Ashley Madison parent company, Avid Life Media. As of this writing, there have been four lawsuits filed against the website with one of them being filed in the US District Court in Los Angeles.
Most of these claims include negligence and breach of contract, along with a mix of different state and federal statutes.
When you go to a website and sign-up for whatever it is that they may be offering, you agree to the company’s terms of service. In many of these agreements, the company may agree not to release your information or sell it to a third party, but they might attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility in connection with a data breach.
Now, just because a company puts a clause into their terms of service that states that they are not responsible for the damages that may result from the accidental loss or theft of your information, that does not mean that the law is necessarily on their side.
Even with the statements that may be in a user agreement, there is still the question of whether the user had reason to expect the site to guarantee their privacy when they were using the service and whether the site and its administrators were negligent in their duty to protect the data of their users.
The Past and the Future
In the past, under common law a company was only responsible for the protection of a person’s data if they actually agreed to protect the information. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is a model that does not work in the internet age. People assume privacy when they submit info to a website and it is often implied by the company if not expressly stated in an agreement. The law is gradually catching up to the technology and the unique threats regarding cyber-security, but there is still some way to go. California has actually been a leader in online consumer protection laws, but even the laws in our state may not provide the level of protection that the average person expects when they use the internet.
It is understandable if some people feel no sympathy for the users of the Ashley Madison website, but don’t be so quick to disregard their right to online privacy and their right to take legal action when their personal information is leaked to the public. Today this may be an issue of the privacy rights for a group of people that were acting in a way that is arguably immoral, but tomorrow it could be an issue of your privacy as an individual.