The gatekeepers of people’s secrets.

Marketers are way too complacent with data.

The gatekeepers of people’s secrets.

Marketers are way too complacent with data.

This is an Op Ed I wrote for The West Australian. It appeared in the Marketing Section. unfortunately the link appears to be dead, so here is a link to the archive, and the post referring to the article. LOL the internet is forever, folks. No, it isn’t.

Last Wednesday began like any other day. 

We grabbed a coffee, checked our social media, checked emails, asked Google embarrassing questions, paid bills, browsed the Internet, did some work, learned that there is a dating website called Ashley Madison and that data had been leaked on the dark web.

We then asked Google “what is dark web”, expressed righteous indignation over the existence of the site, and a few of us pored through millions of lines of text for the email addresses of public figures, friends and loved ones to see if they’d been fooling around on their spouse.

You know, just your average day.

Wait, what?

Yes. You might’ve heard that now-infamous adultery dating site Ashley Madison had a few problems this week. All of the data on all of the Ashley Madison servers, including every user of, released to the world to do as they wish. Which of course, they did. Because, well, Internet.

This was no average day. This was the day where data science met melodrama in a secret alley called the dark web for a rendezvous and involved us all in something we really didn’t want to know. And by golly, were we conflicted about how to respond.

On one hand, the most intimate secrets of nearly 1 million Australians were released for public consumption. On the other, it was 1 million Australians who were members of a website that facilitated extramarital affairs, which many find morally reprehensible. On another hand altogether, the aggregate statistics were sociologically interesting, and the majority of people using the data have behaved with surprising restraint.

The initial reaction over the course of 24 hours was delightfully human: the initial thrill of schadenfreude, and the gratification of seeing cheaters get some comeuppance. But once the afterglow wore off, let’s be honest: in the cold light of day, we felt a little dirty.

As much as we all enjoy the sport of playing heroes and villains and picking a side, it’s important to point out that even unsympathetic victims are still victims. For those of us who were on the database, it was potentially life-ruining private information that was released, for public consumption, without consent. And if you work with data visualisation on the regular like I do, you know exactly what is possible when you have names, addresses, a list of fetishes and time to burn on the Google Maps API. 

When this ugly reality kicked in, we sobered up fast, at the thought of our darkest secrets being shared with the world. Because even if the targets in this instance don’t warrant a whole lot of sympathy, we absolutely need to show empathy, because we all have dirty secrets and embarrassing Google questions that are one lazy “Password1234” away from being public.

The concept of a massive data breach with all our secrets in it has really only been a far-removed, Orwellian concept for most of us until now. We automatically trust Google and Facebook. We automatically trust loyalty programs that track our purchases. We automatically trust our developers to use the Facebook APIs with our Fan Page data responsibly. 

But now – much like the suspicious wife typing her husband’s email address in and seeing that he was a paying member of Ashley Madison – we can’t go back. We can’t un-see. We can’t un-learn. We definitely cannot pretend that we don’t all have to lift our game and find a way to move forward, learn from mistakes and try to re-establish trust on behalf of everyone.

Marketing is about relationships. In a relationship, trust is binary: you trust or you don’t, and once that trust is broken, it affects your capacity to trust anyone anymore. Ashley Madison violated and betrayed their customers by allowing this data to be made public, and this reflects badly on our entire industry. It has shown us what can happen if we are sloppy. We now find ourselves, as an industry, having to earn trust rather than just have it, because somebody else has hurt them. 

This breach is something that will make many of our users more wary of the trust they are placing in our websites, our apps, our emails, our loyalty programs and in us. They are now more acutely aware that they are rolling the dice with their personal data and hoping that their secrets are safe. And that the IT guy has used something more secure than “Password1234” on the router. Sigh.

It is up to us, as the gatekeepers of data, to lift our game and take security, privacy policies and the ethical use of data more seriously.  We now need to earn that trust back, as an industry, because if people aren’t spooked about filling out forms, downloading apps and joining websites after this, then they are living under a rock. 

And if you are still laughing at the poetic justice rather than learning how to be better, then it won’t just be the divorce lawyers who are dancing.

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