Ashley Madison documentary shows the infamous hack wasn’t just about exposed cheaters

Ashley madison

Photo via Counselman Collection/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

Now streaming on Netflix, the film revisits the brutal hack.

Aug. 18, 2015 was very bad day for a lot of people. That was when a hacker group calling itself the Impact Team began leaking user and company data collected from the servers of AshleyMadison.com. The site was essentially OkCupid for serial philanderers, theoretically uniting would-be cheaters with willing extramarital participants.

A month before, the Impact Team had threatened the release if Ashley Madison wasn’t shut down. When the site remained live, the hackers fulfilled their promise, leaking more than 25 gigabytes of data, including credit card info, customer names, and addresses for over 30 million users. It was a good day to be a divorce lawyer; not so much a client of Ashley Madison.

The rise and downfall of Ashley Madison—those behind it, those who used it, and those who made it their target—is the subject of a new documentary that just hit Netflix this month. Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Cyber Attacks premiered on the British network Channel 4 this past summer, but it’s just reached American shores thanks to the streaming service. It’s a fascinating story most people are at least passingly familiar with, but Sex, Lies & Cyber Attacks both explores the topic in a compelling way and comes at it from angles most viewers probably wouldn’t have considered.

The most obvious approach for an Ashley Madison documentary would be focusing on the people who were directly affected—the cheaters suddenly revealed, as well as their partners. Sex, Lies & Cyber Attacks does touch on this, but it consistently takes the less obvious path to do so. Rather than presenting woe-is-me tales from unmasked adulterers, the documentary instead leads with the other side of the equation. One of the first people introduced is Tamsin, a marketing consultant who was a regular Ashley Madison user—as a serial mistress. Dudes stepping out behind their wives backs is a tale as old as time, but it’s interesting to get a look into the mind and motivations of one of the women who regularly preferred the role of “the other woman.”

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The film also visits with one of the hack’s innocent victims—an anonymous husband who discovered his wife has been having multiple affairs using the site. The narrative of this story was very much that of disloyal cads getting caught with their britches down thanks to anonymous hackers—flipping the script and focusing on the people who don’t fit into that simple cliche is a smart move that pays off.

This strategy is applied throughout the film’s arc. Stories of exposed cheaters and heartbroken partners could easily sustain a full-length documentary, but that’s not the route Sex, Lies & Cyber Attacks chooses to follow. Instead, much of its brief running time is focused on the less obvious secrets laid bare by the Impact Team’s snooping. In addition to the user data, the leak included tons of documents from Avid Media, the parent corporation of Ashley Madison, and correspondence from former Avid Media CEO Noel Biderman.

While the internet has presented opportunities for infidelity pretty much from the start, Ashley Madison became an international story due to the unapologetic nature with which it declared its intentions. It barraged the web with glitzy banner ads and commercials accompanied by the tagline, “Life is short. Have an affair.” Biderman made the media rounds, often accompanied by his wife, enjoying all the publicity something as outrageous as an unabashed infidelity dating site could conjure. But the hack uncovered more than just the imminent dissolution of many a marriage. It also revealed that the site was playing fast and loose with its promises to subscribers. Among other things, the site was padding its roster of female members with an army of automated bots designed to entice male members into spending more money, chasing hookups that would never happen this side of The Matrix.

The film also delves into Avid Media’s vast network of other sites, which catered to just about every kink under the red neon sun. Amongst the usual array of MILFs and fesitished ethnicities were several that opened the doors to less legal activities, all with the trademark Ashley Madison wink-wink-nudge-nudge deniability. This is an element of the Ashley Madison hacking story that wasn’t as widely reported, and it makes for an intriguing sidebar.

Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Cyber Attacks isn’t perfect. It briefly touches on many different elements of the hack, but it may leave interested viewers wishing for a deeper dive on specific areas of the scandal. Still, the brisk, 46-minute runtime makes for an easy dive into a story of sex and scandal. 

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