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Scandalous reach of data breach

Scandalous reach of data breach

The series is a retelling of an avarice-ridden and morally questionable dating site and a mammoth cybercrime.

Film: NETFLIX Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies and Scandal

Director: Toby Paton

Nonika Singh

It’s common knowledge that a whole lot of married men and women, too, are on dating sites. But one dedicated entirely to promote adultery sounds a bit of a stretch, if you have not heard of this Canadian website. Netflix’s latest docu-series tells the story of the (in)famous Ashley Madison. Its initial credo line, ‘When monogamy becomes monotony’, may not have rung a bell, but its core belief on the same lines certainly struck a chord with millions around the world.

The real story, however, is not how many were enticed by its axiom, ‘Life is short, have an affair’, though considerable time is spent on detailing its success story. Adultery might fall in the list of Biblical sins, it is as old as mankind and in the modern-day world, perhaps an accepted and forgiven norm. So, what’s the real deal? Why should Netflix focus its energies on what appears to be at best a spilling of dirty secrets. And why should we invest two-and-a-half hours to find out who all cheated on their spouses. Well, as a journalist summarises the Ashley Madison fiasco, ‘It was a giant whodunnit.’ Not because the users included the rich and famous. Back in 2015, the site, which boasted of utmost secrecy, was hacked and the intimate data of millions was made public.

The damaging repercussions of the data breach were enormous. Wrecking lives and marriages, it even led to death. The series brings us the bereaved wife, Christi, of one such man, Jack, who could not cope with public shaming. Clearly, death is too heavy a price to pay for digressions and through Christi, we see how unwarranted righteousness and an ensuing witch-hunt can drive people to the point of suicide.

Indeed, the series is not out to outrage you morally. Rather, one of its biggest strengths is that it is not judgmental about the people who were/are looking for that extra spice outside marriage. Of course, the CEO of Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman, who catapulted the company to dizzying heights of success and was instrumental in its downfall, is not painted flatteringly. Referred to as the ‘king of infidelity’ by the media, a term that the makers of the series also use generously, it does peel off his many masks, including the ‘happily married’ one he wore for public consumption.

Beyond the shock value, what is of public interest is how the site cheated its millions of users who were fallaciously led to believe that their ‘affaires d’amour’ were in safe hands. Even more shocking than the fact that some very well-known public figures were cheating on their partners, is the revelation how the site was defrauding its users. As a journalist puts it, ‘Charging them for the privilege of being lied to.’

Using bot and fake profiles of women to entice men, the dating site even charged for deleting profiles, a task which it had no intention of accomplishing.

What also goes to the credit of the director is that though the series looks at a supposedly sleazy dating site, it offers few salacious details. Scandalous, but not cheap. Rather, in an engaging approach, apart from the regular bytes of journalists, police personnel, insiders and cybercrime specialists, it follows the life of two real couples. The main focus, however, is on one.

Can marriage survive adultery? The tale of Sam and Nia, two good-looking vloggers, humanises the series and suddenly millions of users become real flesh and blood people, at real risk of losing all that they cared for. Yet another thumbs-up for the series is that it manages to rope in some of the site’s ex-employees. Not just spilling dirty secrets, but giving an insight into how the company worked on the ‘any publicity is good publicity’ mantra.

Former vice-president of sales Evan Hawk’s extra-vivacious presence might be at odds with what the makers may have intended to achieve. But his observations are priceless. Humour is threaded in what otherwise is a grave issue at many levels, including infringement of the right to privacy.

We might be tempted to look at the existence of such sites through a moral lens and even the need for such series as an exercise in futility. But the fact that Ashley Madison still exists and has nearly 70 million users does point out that it caters to a need, even if a baser one.

With topnotch camera work by Jean-Louis Schulle, seamless editing by Holly Bridcut, Dan Setford and Wesley Thomas, the three-part series makes for an interesting watch. Provided, like us, you have not watched ‘The Ashley Madison Affair’. This retelling of ways of an avarice-ridden and morally questionable dating site and a mammoth cybercrime in which the hackers who went by the name ‘Impact Team’ were never caught may not make any seismic impact. However, it does tell a thing or two about who we are as a society and where we are headed.