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PUBLIC IS THE NEW PRIVATE

If you thought your partner’s email address might be on Ashley Madison, would you look?

Hillary Clinton whispers to Bill Clinton during a campaign rally in 1993.
Reuters/Ira Schwarz
Some things in public are still private.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

So far, the shockwaves from the Ashley Madison hack have been muted. Though the details of more than 30 million users of the website for extramarital affairs have had their data dumped online, celebrity adulterers have not been outed en masse, and it’s too soon to know if it will endanger millions of marriages or thousands of military jobs. It’s possible, as one commentator argued, that “millions of lives may be about to change profoundly.” But what if they don’t?

Given the staggering number of huge and very public data hacks to date, it seems implausible that one more—even as devastating as this one—will halt or even slow the accelerating digitization of our lives. More couples may now decide (or be forced) to discuss a non-monogamous relationship; but that would just speed up a shift in social mores that’s already happening.

Perhaps what the hack does most of all is reinforce the argument that laws and systems that sharply distinguish “public” from “private” are out of date. In a world where anything can become public, some say, we’re replacing the technical lack of privacy with an implicit social contract. It says, in essence, that just because something about you is knowable doesn’t mean it’s fair game. New social rules govern how public knowledge should be used and interpreted.

In this framework, “private” no longer means “secret,” but “personal.” If someone’s use of Ashley Madison becomes public, it’s still nobody’s business but theirs and their partner’s. And perhaps some partners will prefer not to know. With smartphones ubiquitous, you can probably already read your spouse’s email or text messages with little effort—and you probably choose not to. You might equally choose not to check the Ashley Madison data dump. A relationship relies on good faith. That means trusting your partner not only not to cheat, but not to pry.

This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Sign up for our newsletter here, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.

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