Affairs, data breach and suicides: Everything we know about the 2015 Ashley Madison hack

The Ashley Madison data breach, which exposed the data of millions looking to cheat on their partners, may even be linked to some deaths by suicide, Katie Hawkinson reports.

Tuesday 14 May 2024 20:23 BST
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Ashley Madison’s homepage pictured in 2013. The website, aimed at people seeking affairs, experienced a massive data breach in 2015
Ashley Madison’s homepage pictured in 2013. The website, aimed at people seeking affairs, experienced a massive data breach in 2015 (AFP via Getty Images)

It was supposed to be the most discreet place to go for those looking to cheat on their partner. But In July 2015, millions of people around the world watched helplessly as a nightmare came to life.

That summer, hackers targeted Ashley Madison, a dating website for married or partnered people who wanted to have an affair and released the personal information of some 37 million users. The breach destroyed countless relationships and reputations — and it may even be linked to multiple deaths by suicide.

Now, a Netflix documentary about the scandal, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal, is set to premiere on Wednesday, revealing even more details about the devastating data breach.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Ashley Madison hacking scandal before watching the highly-anticipated documentary:

What is Ashley Madison?

Ashley Madison is a Canadian dating website, which was founded in 2002 and aimed at people looking for an affair.

“Life is short,” the company’s website reads. “Have an affair.”

The Independent previously reported that 86 per cent of the site’s users were men, S?o Paulo had the most registered users of any city and it’s mainly used by rich, powerful men. Before the leak, the website reported more than 37 million users.

After the 2015 leak, it was reported that just three in every 10,000 accounts claiming to be women were run by real people. The website, meanwhile, claimed more than 5 million women used its platform.

The Ashley Madison homepage, pictured in 2024. The company settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit filed on behalf of those impacted by the hackers
The Ashley Madison homepage, pictured in 2024. The company settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit filed on behalf of those impacted by the hackers (Ashley Madison)

Millions targeted in 2015 hack

An unknown hacker — or hackers — called “The Impact Team” obtained millions of users’ personal data in July 2015.

In August, the hackers ultimately exposed the names, passwords, emails, and personal preferences of more than 30 million users.

Those targeted in the hack included owner Noel Biderman — his leaked emails revealed he often sought young escorts, The Guardian reports.

Rick Thomas, an Ashley Madison user, said in 2017 he was part of the leak after joining the site just two weeks prior, The Independent previously reported. Mr Thomas, 56 when he joined and married for 19 years, said he was then blackmailed by an anonymous person calling themselves “Mr X.”

Mr X demanded $1,000 from Mr Thomas, threatening to tell his loved ones about his presence on the site if he didn’t pay up. Mr Thomas eventually confessed to his wife instead, who he said forgave him.

Others did not have the same outcome as Mr Thomas.

In New Orleans, local pastor John Gibson died by suicide just days after the data breach revealed he used the site. Mr Gibson mentioned the dating site in a note left before his death, his wife told CNN in 2015.

Meanwhile the police in Toronto, Canada said in August 2015 that at least two suicides may be linked to the hack.

Several celebrities were also caught up in the data breach, including reality TV star Josh Duggar — who was later convicted in 2021 on child pornography charges.

An Associated Press investigation also revealed that hundreds of US government employees, including those working in the White House, Congress and law enforcement agencies, accessed the site while in their offices.

Other reports in 2015 indicated that officials with the UK government, the United Nations and even the Vatican had used the site.

The company’s fate

Ashley Madison still exists today. Mr Biderman, who took over as the company’s CEO in 2007, agreed to resign from the role shortly after the hack.

Then, in 2017 the company settled a $11.2m class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the millions impacted by the data breach.

Now, the dating site is the topic of Netflix’s forthcoming documentary, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies and Scandal. The documentary will be available on 15 May 2024.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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