Hacking adultery site won't stop cheaters

'Affair' dating site to go public
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Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Hackers who say Ashley Madison defrauds users are blackmailing the infidelity site; this is not something to applaud
  • She says users are foolish to think online data is safe, but getting caught isn't likely to deter adulterers; they cheat because they can

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)It's hard to feel surprised by the recent news that Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people interested in stepping out on their spouses -- tagline: "Life is short. Have an affair" -- is the victim of online hackers.

Surely, the names, email addresses, credit card information and, perhaps best of all, secret sexual fantasies of 37 million philandering users would seem to be an appealing, and inevitable, target for those who make a living scaling supposedly secure Internet walls.
Peggy Drexler
It's also hard to feel sympathy for those users, who now face the threat that the hackers will publish the collected information online. You might say they got what they deserved.
    The hackers, who call themselves the "Impact Team," have demanded that the site go offline, or else the nude photos, undisclosed fetishes and other personal information posted under the company's "stringent security measures" will go viral.
    Of course, there are plenty of reasons to object to people cheating on their spouses, and plenty of reasons to object to a site that helps them do it. But the Impact Team's bone of contention seems not to be a moral one, but rather Ashley Madison's promise of a "full delete" service, which guarantees to permanently erase a user's profile and data for a fee. It's a service that CEO Noel Biderman has publicly said lets users "go back in time and remove conversations and photos" and that nets the company upwards of $1 million a year.
    The hackers say that "full delete" is all but impossible and that Ashley Madison is therefore defrauding its customers. Their hack, they say, which allegedly dug up data previously "deleted," proves it.
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    While hacking and blackmail are not, as criminal activities, something to applaud, neither are breaching someone's security and threatening to expose private information and destroy lives just because you can. If what the Impact Team alleges is true, then Ashley Madison should indeed be held responsible for the millions of users it has misled out of money. It should also be held responsible for the false sense of security it helped impart to those who might not have used the site if they hadn't been thusly reassured.
    But such misrepresentations are Ashley Madison's fault, and not the users', no matter how objectionable their intentions or how naïve they might have been to think that anything is safe on the Internet.
    And naïve they were. After all, how many hacks or data breaches must we read about to understand: Nothing is safe on the Internet. In fact, a similar hack took place in March over at dating site Adult FriendFinder, during which names, addresses and sexual preferences were made public.
    Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice -- well, you know the rest.
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    That said, it's likely that the many users of Ashley Madison would have signed up, created a profile and began searching for a liaison regardless, even if they hadn't been promised full privacy or the option to erase any evidence later.
    After all, the expectation of not getting caught isn't what leads people to cheat. A 2014 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that there were lots of reasons people commit adultery, including because they're narcissists, because their parents cheated, because they felt insecure in their marriage, because their husbands were, ahem, "too big."
    There are, in fact, numerous -- endless -- reasons to engage in an extramarital affair that are, in the end, as complex as they are irrational. Although most people who do so would not ask to be caught, if given the option, the guarantee of not getting caught isn't what pushes them to make the leap from not having an affair to having one.
    A $19 service that promised to "undo" the intention to cheat isn't likely to have diminished the cheating, or stopped it altogether. Cheaters cheat for the same reasons hackers hack: Simply put, because they can.