What Happened to Ashley Madison? The True Story of the Dating ...

15 May 2024

In 2015, the identities of the 37 million users of infidelity website Ashley Madison were hacked and revealed online

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Courtesy of Netflix

'Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal'.

The infamous 2015 hack of the dating website Ashley Madison led to multiple headline-making scandals — and now, a new Netflix documentary is revisiting the data leak and its aftermath.

Ashley Madison rose to fame in the early 2000s as the first — and only — dating website for married people seeking affairs. The website drew criticism for its promiscuous premise, but the naysayers had little to no effect on Ashley Madison’s success. By 2015, the infidelity site had nearly 40 million users worldwide and was projected to earn $150 million in revenues, Ashley Madison's then-CEO Noel Biderman told Business Insider at the time.

“The vision was to be the largest and only website for married people who wanted to have an affair,” an employee said in the trailer for Netflix’s docuseries Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal, which began streaming on May 15.

Ashley Madison was well on its way to realizing that vision when it all came crashing down in July 2015. Internet hackers stole the customer data for all 37 million of Ashley Madison’s users — and posted it online in August 2015. The data leak and its fallout led to the resignation of Ashley Madison’s CEO and the public humiliation of its users.

Adding to the drama was the fact that multiple high-profile figures were named in the Ashley Madison hacking scandal, including Josh Duggar, Hunter Biden (although he denies that he had an account), former Real Housewives of New York City husband Josh Taekman and Snooki’s husband Jionni Lavalle (Snooki has fiercely denied Lavalle had used the site). But Netflix’s three-part docuseries takes a closer look at the everyday people who signed up for the cheating website — and how the data leak affected their relationships and their lives.

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“Rather than berating people who joined Ashley Madison we were much more interested in exploring why they were drawn to the site — what were they looking for? What was going on in their relationships? And crucially — what was their partner’s side of the story?” Toby Paton, the series director, wrote in a statement, per Variety.

But what is the true story of Ashley Madison and its 2015 hack? Here’s everything to know about the infamous dating website’s rise, fall and rebirth.

Carl Court / Getty Images Ashley Madison Infidelity Website.

Ashley Madison is an online dating service that was originally targeted towards people looking to have an affair — either with married individuals or singles.

The site was founded in 2001 by Toronto native Noel Biderman, a former attorney, sports agent and “self-described happily married father of two,” according to a 2009 profile in the Los Angeles Times. Biderman is also behind the website’s name — a combination of the two most popular baby names for girls in 2001 — and its infamous slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”

The premise of Ashley Madison was quick to ruffle feathers, with critics claiming it was promoting promiscuity and profiting off of marital strife.

“This is a business built on the back of broken hearts, ruined marriages and damaged families,” Trish McDermott, a dating-industry consultant who helped found Match.com and Engage.com, told TIME in 2009. “It’s in the business of rebranding infidelity.”

But Biderman was a staunch defender of Ashley Madison, even claiming that the company “preserves more marriages than we break up,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Infidelity has been around a lot longer than Ashley Madison,” Biderman told the outlet. “Given that affairs are going to happen no matter what, maybe we should see Ashley Madison as a safe alternative.”

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Though the company's morals could be debated, its success could not: By 2015, the site boasted nearly 40 million users and was projected to top $150 million in revenue, Business Insider reported. Ashley Madison was even considering a $200 million IPO on the London stock exchange in the spring of 2015, according to Fortune.

What happened to Ashley Madison during the data breach?

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Noel Biderman on 'Lorraine Live' on September 13, 2011.

In July 2015, a group of anonymous internet sleuths called The Impact Team hacked Ashley Madison’s website — stealing user account data for its 37 million users and threatening to post it online.

The data stolen included users’ login details, email addresses, payment transaction history and passwords. The Impact Team threatened to release all customer records (including sexual fantasies, credit card information and real names and addresses) online unless Avid Life Media — Ashley Madison’s parent company — shut down all of its websites, per Business Insider.

At the time of the initial breach, The Impact Team revealed their motivation for the cyber attack. According to the hackers, Ashley Madison charged users $19 for a full delete of their profile (reportedly earning the company $1.7 million in profit in 2014) — but didn’t actually follow through with the requests.

“You promised secrecy but didn’t deliver,” the hackers stated, according to Business Insider. “We've got the complete set of profiles in our DB dumps, and we'll release them soon if Ashley Madison stays online ... A significant percentage of the population is about to have a very bad day, including many rich and powerful people.”

That “very bad day” came in August 2015, when the hackers made good on their threat and released the customer data for all 37 million of Ashley Madison’s users.

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“This event is not an act of hacktivism, it is an act of criminality,” Avid Life Media said in a statement following the data release, per Wired. “It is an illegal action against the individual members of AshleyMadison.com, as well as any freethinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities ... We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

Following the data breach, a $576 million class action lawsuit accusing the company of negligence, invasion of privacy and emotional distress was filed in California. Ashley Madison's parent company settled for $11.2 million in 2017.

Who was exposed in the 2015 hack of Ashley Madison?

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Josh Duggar visits "Extra" at their New York studios at H&M in Times Square on March 11, 2014 in New York City. ; Josh Taekman during Roc Box Presents Kanye West in Concert on October 8, 2005.

Several high-profile figures were exposed when hackers posted the customer data for all of Ashley Madison’s 37 million users.

Josh Duggar, Real Housewives of New York City husband Josh Taekman, YouTube’s Sam Rader, Snooki’s husband Jionni LaValle and Hunter Biden were all named in the Ashley Madison leak. However, Ashley Madison does not verify users’ emails — so an account could be set up with someone’s name and email without their knowledge.

At the time, Snooki denied that her husband had an Ashley Madison account, writing on Instagram that it “couldn’t be any further from the truth.” Biden also vehemently denied having an account on the infidelity website, saying the email linked was one that he no longer used after being hacked.

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“I am certain that the account in question is not mine,” Hunter said in a statement at the time. “This account was clearly set up by someone else without my knowledge and I first learned about the account in question from the media.”

Duggar, Taekman and Rader, however, all issued apologies for their involvement with the website.

Rader, from the YouTube channel Sam and Nia, admitted to making an Ashley Madison account two years prior. He also stated that his wife had forgiven him for the “mistake.”

Taekman, the husband of former RHONY star Kristen Taekman, provided a statement to PEOPLE, apologizing to his wife and children for “any embarrassment or pain” he may have caused.

“I signed up for the site foolishly and ignorantly with a group of friends and I deeply apologize for any embarrassment or pain I have brought to my wife and family,” Taekman said. “We both look forward to moving past this and getting on with our lives.”

Duggar, at the time, was already under fire for allegedly molesting five underage girls (including two of his sisters) as a teenager. After news broke of his Ashley Madison account, he admitted to being unfaithful to his wife Anna and issued an apology on his family’s website.

“While espousing faith and family values, I have been unfaithful to my wife,” the statement read. “I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.”

In addition to exposing high-profile users, the Ashley Madison leak may have been linked to at least two suicides, Toronto police claimed in August 2015. A month later, a New Orleans pastor also committed suicide after allegedly having his name exposed in the data breach.

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What happened to Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman?

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Noel Biderman in central London on September 28, 2010.

In addition to the identities of Ashley Madison’s 37 million users being revealed, Biderman himself was also exposed in the 2015 hacking scandal.

Though Biderman had repeatedly told the media he had never been unfaithful to his wife Amanda, hackers leaked hundreds of the CEO’s emails that claimed otherwise. The emails suggested that Biderman had had multiple affairs, including one with a Toronto-based escort that lasted several years, Buzzfeed reported.

In the wake of the hacking, Biderman stepped down from his role as CEO of Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s parent company. Avid Life Media stated at the time that his resignation was “in the best interest of the company.”

Does Ashley Madison still exist?

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Rob Segal and James Millership.

Though the 2015 hacking threatened Ashley Madison’s existence, the website has continued to thrive in the near-decade since.

In 2016, Avid Life Media rebranded as Ruby Corp. and hired Rob Segal and James Millership as its CEO and president, respectively. The pair worked on revamping the beleaguered Ashley Madison site — which involved gaining back their clients’ trust and winning over new customers.

Segal and Millership increased the site’s cybersecurity — hiring Deloitte, instituting annual audits and removing all of the fake female bots from the website, Business Insider reported. The duo also ditched Ashley Madison’s infamous tagline “Life is short. Have an affair,” and instead replaced it with “Find your moment,” according to a Ruby Corp. press release.

“It was a limiting label that's out-dated and doesn't speak to the wide variety of connections people find on Ashley Madison,” Segal said in the press release. “While remaining true to our roots, Ashley Madison needs to evolve, grow and attune to modern sexuality in 2016.”

The rebrand attempted to shake Ashley Madison’s reputation as a website for those seeking affairs — but the company appears to have returned to its adulterous roots. Its website currently features the original logo (a woman wearing a wedding ring doing the “hush” symbol) and motto of “Life is Short. Have an affair.”

It is also as popular as ever: According to the site, it boasts 80 million users (more than double the amount at the time of the 2015 hacking).

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.

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