The recent dumping of millions of e-mails and other information from Ashley Madison clearly demonstrates one of the central concerns I’ve always had about hackers revealing confidential information. While we might enjoy the discomfiture of people like Josh Duggar or other moralizers and even applaud the work of Edward Snowden for revealing surveillance carried out by government agencies in the name of freedom, one should still recognize that individuals like Snowden and groups like Anonymous have still made a fundamentally egocentric (perhaps even egomaniacal) decision to place their own personal values at the pinnacle of moral standards.

The motivation of the group that revealed the Ashley Madison data is clear. They do not believe that people should ever have sex outside of marriage. While they claim to think that cheating is bad, they have indiscriminately decided to embarrass many people who were essentially using the site to get dates. Some of these people were single; at least one (who launched a class action suit) was widowed. I may not believe ‘life is short, have an affair’ is good advice but so what?

Is cheating on your spouse a good thing? Probably not. Does it damage marriages? In some cases, yes, but in others it may well preserve them. In any case, there is no one size fits all set of rules for human relationships. I wouldn’t impose my values on you – so don’t try to impose yours on me.

The larger issue in any case is not the revelation of people’s sex lives but rather the issue of how far should anyone go to pit their own moral standards against those of the majority or of the state. Was the use of surveillance and other extra-legal measures excessive in the wake of the passage of the Patriot Act in the USA and will it be excessive under the new legislation (Bill C-51) in Canada? Almost certainly.

Should the entire system be torn down by individuals who are offended by any sense that the state has a right to protect itself and its citizens? I’m not convinced.

The biggest issue is that governments have used fears of terrorism to extend the power of the state in unacceptable and, most importantly, unnecessary ways. They have refused to develop sufficient rigorous oversight mechanisms to ensure agencies don’t abuse these powers. Oversight in the USA is weak; in Canada it is virtually non-existent.

It is little wonder that individuals might feel the need and the necessity to speak out. The over-reaction of governments against those who reveal the secrets that should never have existed in the first place hardly discourages others.

So where does the answer lie? Well, not in anonymous cyber-attacks. Anonymity cuts both ways; it may protect the hackers but it also makes it easier to suggest that the hacks don’t come from moral warriors but from rogue states.

Greater transparency, more accountability, better oversight, and punishment of officials who break the rules are all good starts. But that requires people to demand that governments change. Democracy, as always, is up to us.

And that’s ten minutes

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