Professor Madison gives us lesson on data journalism
The unprecedented and titillating leak of data from Ashley Madison’s corporate servers produced the expected first reaction. Everybody who could get access to the file (it was not difficult) looked up their spouse, their ex, their boss, probably even their kids’ schoolteachers.
Most people agree that, nasty as their cheating business was, it was legal. So Ashley Madison (AM) was the victim of a crime when their data was exfiltrated (a fancy word for stolen) from their computers. This is why police agencies including the RCMP and the FBI are working on the case.
It is worth noting that having your email address on that file is not proof that you were an Ashley Madison client, since there was no real validation of signups. A nasty person could easily have faked an entry for you, complete with steamy sexual fantasies.
Of course, if your credit card info is on the database as a paying customer – you probably are in trouble!
What’s really interesting is what happened next.
Clever people around the world starting poking into the 20-plus gigabytes of data from AM’s computers. What they found reveals an even creepier world than just horny husbands chasing a small number of women. By Ashley Madison’s own admission, the site always had many more men than women. Now, it seems, many, if not most of those females were “fembots” – clever pieces of code designed to stimulate men – to part with their money. They must have been pretty convincing, because now-former CEO Noel Biderman bragged in January 2015 that the company made $55M in pre-tax profits in 2014. Back then, he was salivating at the idea of a multi-billion-dollar IPO. That now seems unlikely.
Stolen data files generally don’t come with instruction manuals. A new breed of “data journalists”, led by Annalee Newitz, who writes for Gizmodo, had to make educated guesses about what fields in the leaked data tables actually meant. She didn’t get it right on the first try. She assumed that the field “bc_mail_last_time” would tell her when someone had last checked her or his messages on the system. Only 1,492 of the women had a value in this field, compared to more than 20 million men.
Newitz now admits that was a misinterpretation of the data, but writes that it’s even weirder than she thought. She now believes that the leaked tables actually record when fake females, “engagers” in Ashley Madison parlance, reached out to lure men into for-pay conversations.
“This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives,” Newitz writes. “It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database.
Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly designed robots.”
The AM data analysis continues to yield fascinating results which are appearing on Gizmodo and other sites (see Web Watch). The identity, and true motivation of the “Impact Team” who claimed responsibility for leaking this data, remains a mystery. Was it a competing site? A disgruntled ex employee? Someone whose spouse cheated on AM? The whole truth may never come out.
I was able to make a small contribution to the data analysis of this fascinating case. Several people have commented on the signature image of AM, a woman wearing a wedding ring holding her finger to her lips. Haven’t we seen it before?
Indeed, it is strikingly similar to the movie poster for the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives. Actress Nicole Kidman uses that same gesture and, yes, she has a huge rock on her ring finger. The premise of the movie is that the too-perfect wives of this gated community have been converted into robots. Was somebody at AM trying to send us a message about fembots?
I used the Wayback Machine, a tool that allows you to view snapshots of websites from the past, and determined that AM started using this image on or around January 26, 2012. So, indeed the movie came first, and you can draw your own conclusion about what this might mean.
Some of the most revealing and damning evidence from the AM leak were internal company emails. These appear to confirm the wholesale creation of fake profiles and the use of cheater chatter bots. As everyone from Bill Gates to Hillary Clinton has learned, emails can be a smoking gun that can be used against you. If you don’t need those old messages, archive them and put them on a USB stick and lock it in a drawer. Perhaps right next to your Ashley Madison login credentials.
Dr. Tom Keenan is an award- winning journalist, public speaker, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary and author of the best-selling book Technocreep.