The Dangers of Looking at Ashley Madison Hack Infographics
The first thing I did after the Ashley Madison hack was exposed was check to see if my own email address had been compromised. It was, of course—I’d created an account years ago for a story (I swear). As I passed my email along to colleagues so they could test it on various Ashley Madison “checkers” that sprung up after the leak, it felt very strange to know I could type in anyone’s email address to see if they’d used the site. So I didn’t.
The Ashley Madison hack is just one of many massive hacks the Internet has endured recently. Target credit cards, Home Depot data, Sony employee accounts—they’ve all been exposed. But there’s something far more intimate about this hack: This is about sex, infidelity, marriage, and divorce—this hack is a life ruiner in the truest sense.
This is probably why the Internet has been busy taking the mass data breach and turning it into charts and graphs: “These are the cities that cheat the most.” “Here’s how many Ashley Madison account holders like dogs.” “We found the top kinks for users in Minnesota.” Here’s a fascinating look into how a programmer cracked 4,000 passwords, and another intensely detailed overview of user demographics. As much as this drive to make sense of the data is natural, it’s important to remember that bite-sized presentations of harmful personal information can be problematic.
Making Sense of Chaos
Whenever there’s an information dump, we grasp at ways to understand it. The Ashley Madison hack is no exception. “It’s hard to keep up with all the news and ambiguous details around the Ashley Madison hack that seem to appear every hour,” says Infographic platform Visually CEO Matt Cooper. “The bottom line is that infographics make data more digestible… Infographics about Ashley Madison make it easy to quickly make sense of how many people use the service, and to quickly compare verboten habits of different regions and demographics. That data becomes more personal.”
Many times more personal. While you might have been worried about your partner’s credit card being compromised when Sony was hacked, or that people could find your iCloud pics, there’s nothing comparable to the scope of this breach. Admit it, you wondered if the email address of someone important to you was in there. Maybe you didn’t check (smart), but you wondered. Like Cooper says, it’s personal. But while he—and lots of publishers—think parsing the data with infographics makes it personal, I would argue it puts a wall between us and the people who were hacked.
Sure, a graph gives me more context than a series of 1s and 0s or a list of passwords, but it’s still just a visual. I can lump the nameless masses in there without having to think any harder about it. There’s also the fact that this data dump is enormous: 37 million accounts is a big, massive, intimidating number. It’s hard to even grasp that amount—and when the brain is tasked with attempting to, it sort of shuts down and stops making decisions. So right now, if you’re trying to decide how to feel about this news (angry, sad, scared, exhausted?) or what to do about it (Download it? Leave it alone? Check for someone’s email address? Confess your own use?), you might find yourself riddled into stasis. A study from 2013 says as much:
“Psychologically distancing oneself from the information can be beneficial to decision making under information overload,” authors Jun Fukukura, Melissa J. Ferguson, and Kentaro Fujita write. To test this, the researchers gave participants a large amount of information about cars and asked them to decide on making a purchase. Some were asked to decide about buying a car tomorrow or next year; some in nearby Ithaca, and others across the country. Those who were given the option to choose later and farther made a better decision. Of course, the study’s authors admitted that these things won’t always be suitable for processing information overload. “Psychological distance has been shown to increase people’s tendency to misremember information that is consistent with, but not exactly the same as, the information they were actually presented.”
So if you were struggling with how to feel or react to the hack, and if there was something personal about this for you, you likely found yourself rapt in a story charting the data dump. Maybe that’s what kept so many of us from using the Ashley Madison email checkers or downloading the information and going through it ourselves (aside from that fact that that’s not that easy to do). Or maybe we’ve been struck by information overload.
The Cure for Information Overload
“Consumers… may suffer from too much information when they lack the capacity to process the wealth of information,” a study analyzing how we cope with too much data says. Back in 2008, research mined how much data we consume (pdf)—and it’s a lot: “[That year], American’s consumed 1.3 trillion hour of information outside of work, an average of almost 12 hours per person per day. Media consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 1,080 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for the average person on an average day.” This was seven years ago. It’s only gotten worse. The Ashley Madison data alone is some 30 gigabytes.
If this most recent hack has left us with anything, it’s a feeling of being overwhelmed—and a lot of that is our fault, as in, the media’s. “The dump itself is massive, but it’s not actually ‘information overload,’” says Jonathan Spira, the author of Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization and the VP of research at the Information Overload Research Group. “This is data.” Spira says you can think of things as a pyramid: The bottom is raw data (the Ashley Madison hack) and the top is knowledge, information with human interpretation. He says it’s actually unstoppable, ravenous media coverage that creates information overload.
“It numbs our senses; we become actually immune to understanding and interpreting. The problem of overload with respect to Ashley Madison…well, it’s our fault for writing about it and keeping the story alive,” he says. “Unless you are a person cheating using this, it’s sort of…it’s not different than any other pop culture story.” When I tell Spira about some of the infographics I’ve seen, he sighs: “Oh dear god.” He says being hammered with hot takes and new angles actually hurts our ability to process what’s going on.
But, as some people argue, the problem may not be just how much information we’re assaulted with, but rather how raw and indecipherable that information is. A big part of the issue is that it’s all unfiltered. Certainly one way to filter is to turn text and lists into visuals. There’s a lot of science behind why we love graphics that help contextualize information, and it’s all pretty obvious: Visuals make things easier.
In the book Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, it’s argued that “In many instances, it’s little more than a cognitive shortcut that gives us the illusion of insight but in reality leaves us in the dark about the world around us. Just as sampling was a shortcut we used because we could not process all the data, the perception of causality is a shortcut our brain uses to avoid thinking hard and slow.” That sounds like a really nice way of saying we’re dumbing things down for ourselves, because thinking hard is…hard.
The Dangers of Dumbing Down Data
“Infographics on the hack are basically informational bottom-feeding in the big data food chain,” says coauthor of Big Data and data editor of The Economist Kenneth Cukier, who’s decidedly less nice about the media penchant for colorful graphs and charts. “There has been substantial data analysis about the hack, notably revealing phony female accounts. By contrast, simply splashing aggregate numbers onto a clip art or a map is just juvenile pap tinged with a touch of cyber-Schadenfreude.”
And there are consequences to making large scale assumptions based on these infographics. Case in point: those female Ashley Madison accounts. Gizmodo’s investigation into the user accounts yielded some surprising stats about how many women did, or rather didn’t, use the site, leading many to conclude it’s populated by bots representing women. While there are still questions as to the authenticity of female account holders on the site, it appears that Gizmodo’s report was inaccurate—which says less about the publisher and more about our struggles with parsing data at this magnitude and why partial information shouldn’t be used to make claims—at least not this early on.
“From a data perspective, we know that there will be bias, so drawing conclusions is sketchy,” says Cukier. “For instance, are the most adulterers in Delaware and least in Mississippi? Impossible to say. It’s more likely that the site advertised in the mid-Atlantic states but not the Bible Belt, which skewed the subscriber location data.”
The Gizmodo report claimed that about 12,000 actual women were using the site—a very low number. But it turns out the author couldn’t have deduced how many real women were actively using the site based only on the evidence in the data dump. It’s very possible it’s still not many women, and it’s very possible that Ashley Madison made fake bot accounts. But the problem, as Cukier explained it, is that we’re making conclusions based on information we don’t actually have, or that we’re not fully researching for context.
At the bottom of all of this isn’t a trove of credit card info and bank account access. It’s people’s personal lives. “What’s most real is what the data does not reveal: the degree to which the people behind the hack are intolerant, moral vigilantes who are trying to force the rest of us to conform to their values,” says Cukier. “Wasn’t the net supposed to be inclusive of people, especially those who prefer to live differently?”
If you’re better able to digest the scope of the Ashley Madison hack in infographics and data bites, it’s OK—and it doesn’t make you bad or stupid if you find them interesting. But just remember that behind that carefully chosen typeface and designer-made template are people whose private lives are being ripped to shreds in Internet-friendly, eye-catching iconography.