‘Ashley Madison’ Netflix Documentary Explained: What Happened To Noel Biderman?

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Ever since worldwide access to the internet has become a reality, questions of ethics and morality online have been raised, and the lines between what is socially considered right and wrong have been blurred. Around the same time that the internet was perceived as a possible place to meet romantic partners and make matrimonial ties, early in the 2000s, businesses also played on the age-old vices of human beings. Over the next decade, the Ashley Madison dating website became a sensation, claiming to be a discreet place where married and committed men and women could meet others interested in casual flings or short-term affairs. Netflix’s new documentary series, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, and Scandal, takes a look back at the horrific data breach that the website faced in 2015 and its implications for the lives of its users.


What led to the success of Ashley Madison?

When the availability of the internet started to become more mainstream for the common masses back in the early 2000s, the idea of dating websites first came into being. Since usual factors like distance were simply not present in the online world presented by the internet, it was believed to be a great place for interested individuals to meet each other and possibly fall in love. However, when a tech enthusiast named Darren Morgenstern studied the exact numbers of people signing up for these dating websites, he found that close to 30% of them were married individuals. To Darren, this confirmed that human beings have been cheating on their partners since time immemorial and will continue to do so, especially in the modern day and age. Therefore, he started his own website in 2002, which was directly focused on providing a platform for interested users to find like-minded people for affairs. He used the two most common female names in the United States, Ashley, and Madison, to combine and name his business– The Ashley Madison Agency.

However, the business did not immediately take the market by storm, as the very market itself had not yet been fully developed. After all, common people were still scared of or at least skeptical about online dating, as it was still considered an unusual practice. Moreover, the very idea of a dating platform for married and committed individuals, essentially condoning cheating in a relationship, was largely frowned upon. The creators of Ashley Madison never shied away from accepting the immoral grounds that they were venturing into, though. Evan Back, the former vice president of sales for the company, who appears frequently throughout the Netflix docuseries, admits that their biggest rival was technically not any other dating website but the Bible, meaning the Christian values that teach that cheating is a cardinal sin. It was in 2004 that a new CEO was brought into the company, in the form of a sports lawyer named Noel Biderman, and this was when Ashley Madison turned its fortune around. 

After his appointment, Noel Biderman invested a lot of time and effort in cleaning the company’s image, stressing hard on the claims that Ashley Madison was not an adult entertainment website of any kind, and neither was it for those on the fringe of society. Over the next few years, he appeared in numerous TV and radio talk shows, speaking about the business and mentioning how any normal person could be a user without having to feel any shame or guilt at all. Biderman’s stance on the entire matter was aimed at making the world believe that cheating might just actually help a couple maintain their relationship or marriage, which in itself is a preposterous idea. According to him, couples who have been in a marriage for a long time and have clearly lost the spark between them might still be stuck in a situation where leaving each other is not an option. In these cases, they would be the ideal users of the Ashley Madison website, which was focused entirely on providing a solution to such individuals. From a personal perspective, this is most certainly the worst suggestion to give to people stuck in unhappy marriages, as these actions do not only end up hurting them but very often the children in these households as well.

In order to make his company more presentable to the masses, Biderman also brought his own wife to many of the interviews, making her talk about the positive side of ‘healthy cheating’. The man himself was naturally asked numerous times whether he was a customer of his own business, to which he and his wife affirmed that they were in a very healthy and happy marriage, which everyone in the world might not be lucky to have. Over time, the advertisements for the website also changed in style, from being outright problematic and catering to male fantasy to being more sensitive and also focusing more on women. It was stated by the CEO that a significant percentage of his user base consisted of women, which suggested that the Ashley Madison website was not merely a platform for men to cheat on their wives. In the 2010s, Ashley Madison became a global brand, launching in numerous countries around the world and spending considerable efforts on making specific advertising for these markets. The number of users also cranked up hugely, making it quite a profitable business. At the base of the service was the promise that a member’s details would always remain confidential no matter what, but this very belief was shaken when suddenly the website was attacked by a group of hackers.


What did the Ashley Madison data breach reveal?

In July of 2015, the employees at the Ashley Madison office in Toronto, Canada, were shocked to learn that their website had been hacked into by a supposed group calling themselves The Impact Team. When logged onto the website, a message left by the hackers clearly stated that their only demand was that the site be taken down and the business be closed, with no monetary claim whatsoever. It was also mentioned in the message that the hackers did not only have access to the user database but also to every computer in the office, meaning that they knew all about the business as well. The Impact Team originally gave Ashley Madison thirty days to shut down their business, threatening to leak the users’ data otherwise. As a response to this threat, Noel Biderman enlisted the help of two Swedish cybersecurity experts, meaning ethical hackers, to find out who had launched the attack against his website and to take the necessary steps against them.

The management had no intention of shutting down the business over this matter, and so they did not pay heed to the threats. After a couple of weeks, The Impact Team revealed the news about their attack on the website to the media, resulting in the start of a panic among its users and a sensation on news programs. Finally, at the end of the thirty-day mark, the hackers released all private information about the user database, which included the real names and addresses of users, along with their credit card details and the exact secret desires they had entered. This was not the end of the attacks, though, as a few weeks later, another massive data stash was released to the public over the internet, which included more internal documents of the Ashley Madison company. The second data breach and leak contained information about the office’s floor plan and even the private emails of the erstwhile CEO, Noel Biderman.

As news about these massive security breaches made it to the mainstream media, the Ashley Madison website came under intense scrutiny. It was then that the world realized that the company had hardly given any attention to data security for a number of years, despite privacy and discreteness being the most integral USPs of the business. For years, a great deal of money had been spent on advertising and marketing the platform, while matters of security and data privacy were mostly ignored. Although a number of safety certifications were displayed on the homepage, all of them were fake images made by in-house designers. When an investigative journalist, Joseph Cox, established communications with the hacker group, he was told about a number of scams that the website was running, and his search for the truth brought out some more shocking secrets about the company.

Firstly, a significant number of the women visible on the platform were found to be fake profiles, either handled by the employees or by automated bots that only started the conversations. This naturally involved the theft of identity, with regards to photographs, names, and personal details, and was also deceitful towards the male members. Interestingly, this also hilariously exposes the sheer desperation that some men have when it comes to sexual affairs, for they were fooled into believing that computer bots were real women interested in them. Ashley Madison was exactly making use of this desperation, and their business model was built to exploit this desire. Users were required to provide credit card details at the very time of creating an account, and they needed credits, which could be then bought for real money, to chat with any other member. The various tiers of membership, differentiated by the fee associated with them, were fake too. A certain feature, which required twenty dollars extra, assured members that their accounts would be deleted from the database forever, and this became a very successful source of income for the company. However, this involved a scam as well since these accounts were never removed and were treated exactly the same as the other ones.


What were the real-life implications of the data breach?

Netflix’s Ashley Madison documentary puts a significant focus on the effect that the horrific data breach had on the lives of normal people who were among the user base. First and foremost, men and women who had been cheating on their respective partners had to face confrontation and were called out by society at large. However, with time, many scamsters started to misuse the data from the leaks, as people were targeted by blackmailers to pay money or have their reputations destroyed. Many of the panicked users rushed to ethical hackers and others who claimed to be able to remove the records from the internet, and they were financially scammed at this stage as well. But there were other, more severe implications as well, like in the case of a New Orleans couple, Christi and her husband, John. 

After the names of the users were leaked on the internet, John was found to be a member of the website, and he was immediately fired from his job. Having been high school sweethearts who married at a young age, John could never face his wife after his secrets were out, and he instead chose to tragically take his own life. The series also extensively covers another couple, Nia and Sam, who eventually became vloggers after the popularity of social media and YouTube. Although they were proudly Christian and even spread Christian family values on their videos, Sam had actually made a profile on Ashley Madison and had to come clean to his wife after the data leak. In the process, Nia learned that her ideal, devout Christian husband had cheated on her numerous times, even having romantic relations with some of the women on a short-term basis. By the end of the documentary, though, the couple has a happy ending, as Nia gave her husband a second chance, perhaps like a true ideal religious wife, and they continue to be together and run their YouTube channel.


Who was the perpetrator behind the hack?

To date, the biggest mystery about the Ashley Madison website hack remains the identity of the hacker group, The Impact Team. It is quite bizarre that the group, or perhaps individual, was never heard of before or after the Ashley Madison hack, meaning that they cropped up only in order to attack the website. It is extremely possible that the attack had a moralistic and judgmental nature to it since the company that openly supported and perhaps promoted infidelity was on the radars of many. However, some also believe that it could have been the work of a disgruntled employee or an insider, considering the extent of the attack. Initially, some even suspected that Noel Biderman himself might have had something to do with the leaks since the mention of the website on news TV programs led to a large boost in users and visitors. However, the second data leak, which exposed Biderman’s personal emails, put this suspicion to bed, as the CEO would not have obviously caused his own harm. After all, his emails revealed that the man was regularly cheating on his wife and hiring the services of escorts.

Although a certain individual had been suspected of being linked to the data breach, he met with the authorities and managed to clear his name. Since then, no other link has been found to The Impact Team, despite monetary awards being announced, and it is largely believed that the hack was the work of a single individual and not any group. Despite the troubles, the Ashley Madison website still continues to exist, with extramarital affairs still its main focus, although the team running the business has changed. Noel Biderman exited the company in 2015 and has stayed away from the Netflix docuseries, despite clarifying that he remains a committed husband and father. 


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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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