Image via Ashley Madison
A couple of weeks ago, Ashley Madison, a dating website for married folk, was hacked. Those responsible said the attack was a response to the fact Ashley Madison does not delete users' personal information after they close their accounts, despite advertising that they do. Confusingly, if it's the users' privacy they're worried about, the hackers also said they would release the information they had gathered to the public. Soon, they implied, the landfills of England would be glittering with the sparkle of abandoned wedding rings. Maybe.
The thing about the Ashley Madison hack is that you can't help feeling smugly superior to the victims. We're not talking about a site for legitimate polyamory here—there's more than enough of that on OKCupid. This is a site for people who want to cheat on the people who love them, and we all love watching a cheater get caught. We all want to see the bad guy get busted.I say "guy" because that's what most of us probably imagine when we think of the site—the marauding cad telling his wife he's got to work late, before speeding up the A30 for a half-hour tryst in an Exeter Travelodge. Of course, that's the first big problem with this sort of reaction: People could be on this site for all sorts of reasons. The site may be heaving with sleazy bastards and pube-shaving sugar babies, but somewhere in the big database of cheating spouses sits, say, a woman trapped in a loveless relationship with an abusive husband.Exposing people for their "sins" without having any context for them is pretty haphazard and irresponsible. We assume the consequences are laughable because we assume the victims of this hack are deserving of the exposure. Perhaps most are, but for every hundred of them, another person may well be enduring domestic violence as a result.The other big assumption we're all making is that this wouldn't happen to us. We're above it. Shit like this happens to other, stupider people. The thing is, we're getting to the point where it will. If you have a kink, a fetish, a "deviant" desire, a secret attraction, a porn habit, or any kind of sexual predilection you'd rather keep quiet, there's every chance it could end up on the web in the next few years.
And you're saying no, not me. I don't buy porn, I don't talk to dates online, I don't google or discuss my kinks; I phone people when I want to have sex with them. I'm immune. What you don't realize is that the technology arriving in the near future is so close to supernatural that it doesn't matter if you don't tell the internet what you're thinking—it can just read your mind.Most people now understand that sharing private information on the internet can be dodgy. If you've used a credit card on a porn site, your purchases could be exposed. If you've got an online dating profile, it could wind up exposed, along with all the conversations you've had. If you post on the fetish site FetLife, that information could become publicly available. People get this, and they change their behavior accordingly. Even so, this information alone is scary: If some of the internet's big porn sites or fetish communities were hacked, the potential for harm would be pretty enormous. In fact, hackers have targeted users on sites like PornHub for some time.Artificial intelligence and information integration—the ability to easily merge large, messy datasets from different sources—are set to take things much further than that. Algorithms digging through your data can not only organize and highlight information you've posted online, but extrapolate new information that you didn't even mean to provide.We've seen examples of this kind of work at Facebook, which by now has access to data on most adults in the Western world. Data scientists there are already looking at how to predict human behavior; like when do we fall in—or out—of love, and how will we vote. Supermarkets aren't far behind: American store Target famously figured out how to tell if its customers were pregnant—sometimes before their own families knew.
Much of the data we leave on social networks is public, or at least only "semi-private," and it's highly likely that the rogue descendants of these experimental algorithms will find their way into the public domain sooner or later. Kooky "who's my soulmate" sites that claim to analyze your Twitter feed exist already, but in the future algorithms could reach the point where a spouse could find out with 80 or 90 percent certainty if their partner was cheating without needing anyone to hack a dating website. And if the algorithms aren't completely accurate, well that just increases the chance of chaos.And then we get into the realms of the truly terrifying—the terabytes of audio, video, and imagery uploaded to the internet's vast fields of servers daily. If you live in a city, the odds of your face ending up on a webcam or a live stream or a tourist's holiday snap or a cyclist's GoPro are increasing hourly. Facial recognition is progressing in leaps and bounds—and even if it's not entirely accurate, a computer could combine a rough guess with information about your location, people nearby and data from a possible match's social media account to come up with a decent idea of who the person is. From there, it's only a short step to putting your name in Google and finding yourself in the background of a YouTube video you never knew existed. If you were walking out of a café with your lover, and your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife saw, things could get very awkward.People like Mark Zuckerberg have long advocated for a sort of radical honesty when it comes to our lives online. Once everybody knows everything about everyone, the theory goes, stuff like embarrassing photos or what porn you watch won't seem to matter so much. Of course, it's easy not to worry what people think about you when you're a white, male, Harvard-educated billionaire who'll never have to apply for a job again in his life.Ordinary people living fragile, complex lives may have a lot more reasons to hide. Increasingly, though, they won't be able to. Whether you choose to engage with the internet or not, its eyes, ears and algorithms will hunt you down. They will find you, and they will process every scrap of information they can about you until there are two competing realities—the you that walks this Earth and the approximation of you inferred and acted upon by a billion hungry machines and the companies that run them. When that time comes, dating site hacks will be the least of our worries.Follow Martin on Twitter.