Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal review – jaw-dropping tales from the adultery site fiasco

People who are familiar with the Ashley Madison fiasco might initially wonder why Netflix is taking such a gentle approach to this story. For the first episode of three, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal seems more like a sales pitch for the adultery site than a serious investigative documentary, though it does eventually get to the grit of the saga. Ashley Madison, you may recall, was – and, astonishingly, remains – a dating site for married people who want to have an affair, discreetly. In 2015, a mysterious hacking group threatened to leak, then did leak, details of the site’s users, exposing many men to their unsuspecting families, colleagues and, in some cases, constituents. The hackers followed this with a second data dump, revealing serious privacy failings within the company itself, as well as embarrassing personal details about its publicity-courting, soon to be ex-CEO, Noel Biderman.

This is an era-defining tale: an online security horror story that touches on greedy tech corporations, late-stage capitalism, religious hypocrisy and proto-AI. Ashley Madison, a name taken from two popular girls’ names in the US and chosen because it “seemed a little upper class”, quickly turned into a “cash cow”, according to its former vice-president of sales, Evan Back. Back is an entertaining interviewee and often makes this seem like much more of a lark than the leak and its fallout turned out to be. Users were charged for credits to message other users. Cannily, and outrageously, they were alsany trace of them from the site. Needless to say, this promise was nothing more than snake oil.

The programme revels in the early days of the site, when the marketing ideas and adverts were both stupid and highly effective. An old slogan, “When monogamy becomes monotony”, is ditched because users were confusing the word with “mahogany”. They settle instead on “Life is short. Have an affair.” When Biderman joins as CEO, as this documentary portrays it, he seems to delight in the controversy and moral panic sparked by the site’s existence (a note reveals that he declined to be interviewed). Tellingly, every time the site was condemned on TV, the number of sign-ups spiked. “They say negative publicity is good publicity,” says one former employee, which is in the right ballpark, I suppose.

But the cash cow was about to topple over. At this point, the series turns into a whodunnit, though with no real resolution, in case you’re expecting a definitive answer. After receiving a ransom note, the company hires some Swedish tech whizzes to try to crack the case. I mention this because one of them looks so much like Matt Damon playing a Swedish hacking genius that I started to wonder if it was him. They have their theories, alluded to vaguely, but after the data is exposed, their services are no longer required. It is simply too late to put this adulterous genie back in the bottle.

Amid all the chaos caused by the leak, there is a human cost. The series is lifted by a frank interview with Sam Rader, a Christian family vlogger who first went viral with a clip called “Good Looking Parents Sing Disney’s Frozen (Love Is an Open Door)” and who compounded his online fame when he tested the urine his wife left in the toilet overnight, to surprise her with news of her own pregnancy. On YouTube, he portrayed himself as a good Christian father, but admits here that he had a secret life, in a story that the film-makers tease out slowly. The details, as they emerge, are jaw-dropping. We also hear the story of John, a professor at a seminary school, through his wife, Christi, for whom the consequences of public exposure were much more tragic and final.

These two strands – outrageous techno-capitalists and remorseful users – sit side-by-side a little uneasily. The human cost is grave, yet the film revels in the near-comedic brashness of Biderman and Back’s money-printing enterprise. After the leak, the TV personalities who had previously adopted a position of moral outrage soon shifted to prurient curiosity in the name of public interest. I was left with the impression that this is being sniffed at; though, arguably, there is public interest in an official claiming one position in public and behaving entirely in opposition to that in private. It also takes its time getting to the fact that many of the women on the site were bots, which adds an unexpected layer of sadness to the whole affair. There could have been more depth, and some intriguing strands are left to dangle, but as with the leak itself, it proves very difficult to look away.

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Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies and Scandal is on Netflix now.

The Guardian

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