A mere two months ago, in July of 2015, it was revealed that the dating website Ashley Madison had been hacked. The hackers referred to themselves as the “Impact Team,” and threatened to publish user information if the website was not shut down. In August, the hackers made good on their word and released the names, email addresses, credit card numbers, physical addresses, sexual preferences, and payment history of over 30 million Ashley Madison users. These users included YouTube personalities, reality TV stars, pastors, celebrities, judges, and other government officials. The implications of the hack go beyond public embarrassment, as it highlighted ongoing concerns over data privacy on the Internet.

Arguably this hack has garnered so much public fascination because Ashley Madison is not your typical dating website. The site is designed to assist married people in cheating on their spouses, the slogan being, “Life is short. Have an affair.” Several theories have been put forth as to why the hackers targeted Ashley Madison, including the theory that the hackers were upset over the company’s “full delete” service. The full delete service entailed the customer paying a $19 fee in exchange for a full delete of the customer’s profile and any and all associated data. As became apparent when the hackers released the information, this full delete service was unsuccessful in removing all user data.

In the wake of the information release, Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s Toronto-based parent company, is facing a rapidly growing number of lawsuits. Most concerning for Avid Life are the growing number of class action suits. For example, on July 22, 2015 a Missouri woman filed a lawsuit under the name “Jane Doe” in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, seeking class action status as well as a jury trial, alleging over $5 million in damages. The woman claims that despite paying the $19 fee for the full delete service, her personal information was not removed from the site. Similarly, two Canadian firms have filed a $578 million class action lawsuit against the company on behalf of “all Canadians,” claiming that Ashley Madison “failed to protect its users’ information.” The attorney who filed the suit, Ted Charney, went on to say, “In many cases, the users paid an additional fee for the website to remove all of their user data—only to discover that the information was left intact and exposed.”

In a different vein, Christopher Russell of Maryland has filed a lawsuit against Avid Life Media in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Unlike the majority of the currently pending suits that are based on privacy claims, Russell is suing under a fraud claim. Specifically, Russell alleges that Avid Life violated consumer protection laws because the company advertised that it had several million female users, when in reality the company had greatly exaggerated the number and had allegedly created “fem bots.” These fem bots were reportedly programmed to engage male users on the website. Russell seeks to certify a class consisting of at least 25,000 people, and he is seeking injunctive relief as well as damages.

As the lawsuits against Ashley Madison continue to pour in, the courts will have to determine whether to certify these plaintiffs as a class. This already complex matter is further complicated by the fact that several of the privacy lawsuits have been filed under the aliases “Jane Doe” and “John Doe,” as the plaintiffs wish to remain anonymous. The courts will face a separate challenge in deciding whether or not to allow the plaintiffs to retain this anonymity. In addition, the courts will also face issues in determining whether to accept information and evidence obtained either directly or indirectly from the hack. While we will have to continue to watch the story unfold in court, Ashley Madison remains undaunted. The company reported that since the hack and subsequent information release, “hundreds of thousands of new users” have signed up for the site.

Nicole Kalkines

 

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