I have been heartbroken over the confessions of sin from Josh Duggar over the course of the past year. First with his confession of child molestation as a young man and now with his confession of adultery and pornography use. It is at a time like this that we should pray for the Josh Duggar family and walk with him on the road of repentance. However this is also a time where we should "Take heed lest we fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). I recently ran across an article my friend Tim Challies wrote on his blog and wanted to share it with you.
You can find the original post on his site.
You have heard by now that the site AshleyMadison.com was hacked and that millions of users had their information made public. Ashley Madison is a company that exists to facilitate (and even guarantee) adulterous relationships, and now those people who wanted to be quietly unfaithful to their spouses have been suddenly outed. As I read the headlines and heard of some of those caught up in the scandal (including, sadly, Josh Duggar), I thought back to one of the first times in Internet history that we had to grapple with the power of the data we leave behind us every time we use the Web. For that we will need to go back to 2006.
Who you are when you are alone and online, that is who you really are—no more, and no less.
In 2006, America Online made an epic misjudgment which taught us a valuable lesson: Who you are when you are alone and online, that is who you really are—no more, and no less. As part of a research project headed Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, AOL made available to the public a massive amount of data culled from their search engine — the search history of 650,000 users over a three-month period. This totaled some 21 million searches. Before releasing the data, they anonymized it, stripping away user names and replacing names with numbers, so that a user with a name like timc2000 simply became User #75636534. Yet because of the often-personal nature of the data, it did not take long before many of those abstract numbers were linked to real names, an obvious and serious violation of privacy and confidentiality. Within days, AOLrealized its mistake and withdrew the data, but already it had been copied and uploaded elsewhere on the Internet, where today it lives on in infamy.
Some of the search histories were dark and disturbing, others unremarkable in every way. Still others were strangely amusing. It was often possible to reconstruct a person’s life, at least in part, from what they searched for over a period of time. Consider this user:
This glut of user data raised a nearly endless number of questions and concerns. Primarily, it brought awareness to the fact that search engines know you better than you may like. Actually, they probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. You tend to forget what you have searched for in the past; they don’t. We may like to think that our searches are just quick queries, harmless and pointless inquiries known only to us.
Here is an AOL user whose searches tell a sad story (for sake of space, I have stripped out a large number of searches):
What is so amazing about these searches is the way people transition seamlessly from the normal and mundane to the outrageous and perverse.
What is so amazing about these searches is the way people transition seamlessly from the normal and mundane to the outrageous and perverse. They are, thus, an apt reflection of real life. The user who is in one moment searching for information about a computer game may in the next be looking for the most violent pornography he can imagine. Back and forth it goes, from information about becoming a foster parent to the search for incestual pornography. One user went from searching for preteen pornography to searching for games appropriate for a youth group. Others, spurned lovers, sought out ways of exacting revenge while still others grappled with the moral implications of cheating on their spouses. These searches are a glimpse into the hearts of the people who made them.
And now millions of Ashley Madison users have been outed in much the same way, except this time their actual names and personal information are sitting right there alongside their data. They have been exposed as people who went looking for adultery. And the whole world is sitting by, looking on with an amused eye. Spouses are searching through the data wondering if even their husband, their wife, may have been involved. Gossip blogs are combing the data looking for headlines.
One of the great deceptions of the Internet is that it allows us to think there are two parts to us, the part who exists in real time and space, and the part who exists in cyberspace. But events like this ought to make us realize that when you go online you display and expose who and what you really are. And who you really are will eventually find you out. God will not be mocked.
I am a Husband to Clarissa, Pastor at Liberty Baptist Church, reader of many books, and tweeter at @brad_merchant.