By now you have, no doubt, heard that hackers stole a trove of account information on users of Ashley Madison, a dating site for adulterers, generally marketed to married men. You likely have also heard that this hacked account data was just dumped all over the internet. By now, you may have even found one of the dozens of sites that allow people to simply enter an email address and discover whether it was part of the leak. Maybe you even found someone you know.
I did. The person I found? Me.
There was one problem: I never signed up.
Someone used my email address to create a fake profile. This shouldn't have come as a surprise, given the site's notoriously bad security, which doesn't require email verification to create an account. Neither my name nor my email address are particularly unique. I've added many a superfluous number to the end of a username because someone else got there first. I once worked at a small office where probably 1/6 of everyone there shared my first name, my last name, or both. Moreover, many of the emails in the leak (for example, firstname.lastname@example.org) aren't even from real domains. In fact, some significant percentage --the hackers say 90-95 percent -- of female profiles on the site are fake, meant to lure paying male clients into believing that the place is teeming with women ready to be whisked away to hotel rooms.
Nevertheless, I was shocked. More than that, I felt guilty. Horribly, horribly guilty.
To be clear, I did not make this account. Of course, there's no way for the average reader, who has never met me, to be certain of this. However, the evidence to date -- fake accounts, fake email addresses, fake women -- should be enough to convince even the most skeptical reader that many of the accounts released in the leak don't belong to the owner of the email address in question.
As for me, the only time I've even come close to cheating was when I was 14 years old, classically insecure, and running with a group of kids who thrived on adolescent melodrama via secret-not-so-secret make out sessions with whoever was on hand. More to the point, I've felt wracked with guilt about it ever since. Since then, I've been neurotically monogamous, going so far as to once text someone I went on a single date with to inform them that it was over because I had just met someone I was hoping might possibly ask me out. (To which the response was, if I recall, the text message equivalent of a polite, confused shrug).
And yet, after discovering my email in the leak, I spent the next hour furiously searching the internet for corroboration that, yes, many of the email addresses in the hack were fake or had been appropriated.
Why was I seeking outside confirmation that this account didn't belong to me? I knew it wasn't me. Yet here I was, searching furiously in my inbox to see whether I'd ever received any email from Ashley Madison (I had not). My mind raced. Could I have gotten drunk and done it on a whim years ago? (Answer: no. Even in my younger days, no matter how drunk, I have consistently turned down married men). Could I have signed up just to look around, when one of my friends was writing an article about the site? (Answer: no. I have never been stupid enough to sign up for something like that with my regular email address). Is it possible I have a secret split personality who's really into married dudes? (What?)
Yet I could not shake the feeling of guilt. No one was actually even accusing me of wrongdoing, but here I was, panicking over the thought that I must have done something, though I had no idea what.
The Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people convicted of crimes, states that 1 in 4 of their exonerees has provided a false confession to the police. Their website lists a series of factors that might cause someone to confess to something they did not do: intoxication, diminished capacity, fear of police violence, the usual suspects. But when you watch videos of people giving false confessions, sometimes they look truly wracked with guilt -- not like someone making a knowingly false confession to avoid a worse fate, or even someone who's lost hold of their senses, but rather someone who thinks, maybe I did do it? What's wrong with me?
This is considered an "internalized false confession." Internalized false confessions have been reproduced in labs, where test subjects are induced into believing something that never happened. Saul M. Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College, notes that two factors are generally present in these scenarios: (1) an innocent person who is vulnerable or suggestible and (2) misinformation. Thus, for example, people put into interrogation rooms for hours and hours can become vulnerable and suggestible. Then, police will often confront suspects with misinformation -- "we have your fingerprints," "someone saw you," "your parents told us you did it." These things, combined, can cause people to not only falsely confess, but to also feel like they did something wrong. While this feeling is generally temporary, it only needs to last so long in order for it to produce a confession that will all but guarantee conviction in front of a jury.
The media storm surrounding the Ashley Madison data dump may have given the data a heightened sense of trustworthiness. Endless headlines proclaim that "EXPERTS" determined the leaked data was real. Media commentators are debating whether the people exposed deserve the humiliation and whether, in a battle between adulterers and hackers, there were any "good guys" at all. All of this likely combined to make the appearance of my email address in the leak an authoritative-sounding piece of damning misinformation. The internet, like a cop in an interrogation room, was lying to me.
Here's the better question: why am I so suggestible? I'm not particularly young. I'm bright. I wasn't drunk. In fact, I'm a lawyer who's used to standing my ground in the face of large men hollering in my face, making all manner of ridiculous accusations and waiving around facts I know to be untrue. So, what gives?
Maybe it's this: when I'm a lawyer, I represent someone else. Once I sign a client up, I have complete confidence in them and their version of events. I believe my clients have done nothing wrong (and, if they have, that it's irrelevant to the case at hand).
When it comes to me, though? Remember, I'm still wracked with guilt about something I did as a child, 20 years ago. Maybe some of us harbor guilt that, like air in a balloon, finds a way to bulge out at the slightest opportunity. Maybe I feel guilty to have landed such a sweet and loving partner, and think that I must be somehow unworthy of him and am waiting for someone to prove me right. Maybe there are just some people who, when faced with accusations (or, in my case, the possibility of a hint of an accusation), simply respond with feelings of guilt.
All of which is to say, if something this innocuous could cause someone like me to temporarily internalize false guilt, imagine what happens when an innocent person faces down police officers for hours on end who are pumping them full of misinformation. Then, imagine the consequences.