Online Adultery Leads to Cyber Warfare?

People who go online likely consider the risks involved with using the Internet. People who contemplate extra-martial affairs probably consider the risks of those activities, too.

And, people who go online to seek out extra-marital affairs likely are mindful of the compounded risks of such endeavors. But do they envision that online adulterous activities could lead to a type of cyber warfare? Probably not, but at times reality can be stranger than fiction.

By now, unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard of the hack attack on the Ashley Madison site. Long story short, Ashley Madison is a site that boasts many millions of “anonymous” users who can seek out sexual partners outside of their marriages, because “life is short.” Unfortunately for the “anonymous” Ashley Madison users, the site was hacked, personally identifiable information was obtained, the identities of some of the site’s users has been revealed, and there is the prospect that other Ashley Madison users will be unmasked going forward.

Obviously, the revelation of the identities of the Ashley Madison users can lead to negative repercussions for them. Plainly, their revealed use of the site might not stand them in good stead with their spouses and their families. Some employees could also lose their jobs for various reasons (e.g., violating the laws of their states that still make adultery an illegal activity).

But, you ask, how does all of this lead to cyber warfare?

Well, according to a recent report by CNN, foreign spy agencies, of countries such as China and Russia, are implementing huge database analyses to put together and cross-reference information obtained from cyber attacks such as the attack on the Ashley Madison site. Why would they do that? The point would be to exert leverage and to potentially blackmail U.S. federal employees.

How would this work exactly?

Apparently, thousands of federal email addresses have been leaked as having used the Ashley Madison site. If a country such as China or Russia could ascertain the identity of a federal employee whose email address was used on the site, that country could threaten to reveal that employee’s seemingly adulterous behavior unless that employee did favors for China or Russia in return for not publicly disclosing his Ashley Madison usage.

Needless to say, this is troubling, especially as CNN further reports that U.S. government systems and private company systems remain vulnerable, and the Ashley Madison hack obviously is not an isolated instance.

None of this is to suggest that a foreign country is responsible for the hack attack on the Ashley Madison site. Rather, once a site like Ashley Madison is hacked and its data is out in the wild at least to some extent, that data can be leveraged by one country against another by making threats to government employees at risk of disclosure.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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