Security

What Ashley Madison did and did NOT delete if you paid $19 – and why it may cost it $5m+

Owner ALM now sued in California as well as Canada

Add a multimillion-dollar US class-action lawsuit to the growing number of court battles facing the owner of the hacked Ashley Madison website.

A class-action complaint [PDF] filed in a US District Court in California this week alleges that Avid Life Media (ALM) neglected to properly secure the highly compromising personal information of its AshleyMadison.com users.

The suit notes that, among other claims, ALM offered a paid option in which people who created a profile could have their account scrubbed from the Tinder-for-adulterers website if they coughed up $19. When the massive data dump of Ashley Madison lust-hunters surfaced, it was found that while information was indeed removed when accounts were deleted, some details remained in the site's databases – and were splashed all over the web by miscreants.

Here's some example records from the leaked database of what appears to be a paid-for deleted account (on the left), and an active one (on the right). The active account user chose to keep some of their details private, such as their name and street address, but still handed over their GPS coordinates and email address.

Table cells in red have been censored by El Reg as they contain potentially identifying information; cells in green were deleted by Ashley Madison:

Deleted account Active account
ID number 271825 143760
Email address deleted@almlabs.com xxxxxxx@xxxxx.xxx
Date created '2004-10-22 03:57:35' '2004-02-10 18:11:36'
Created by 0 0
Last updated '2015-03-19 11:04:08' '2015-06-11 10:59:49'
Updated by 0 10
Admin value 2 2
Status value 2 2
Account type 1 1
Membership status NULL NULL
Ad source 3 6
Profile number NULL 143760
Nickname '<271825>' xxxxxx
First name '<paid_delete>' NULL
Last name '<paid_delete>' NULL
Street address '<paid_delete>' ''
Street address '<paid_delete>' ''
City 'York' 'Trenton'
ZIP/Post code '<paid_delete>' xxxxx
State 39 31
Latitude xx.xxxxx xx.xxxxx
Longitude -xx.xxxxxx -xx.xxxxxx
Country code 1 1
Phone number '<paid_delete>' NULL
Work phone number '<paid_delete>' NULL
Mobile phone number '<paid_delete>' NULL
Gender 2 2
Date of birth 'xxxx-xx-xx' 'xxxx-xx-xx'
Profile caption '<paid_delete>' 'Seeking a long term FUN!'
Ethnicity 1 1
Weight xxx xxx
Height xxx xxx
Body type 4 4
Smoker? 1 1
Drinker? 1 1
Initially seeking? 6 5
Relationship status 2 2
Open to flags '|7|37|36|42|44|39|29|18|' '|7|17|18|40|31|48|43|29|30 |19|34|38|36|42|44|'
Open to others flags '<paid_delete>' ''
Abstract '<paid_delete>' 'I am seeking a woman for fun, laughs, dates and to enjoy each other's company. Just want to enjoy life again. Please be a real person, too many fake requests on here.'
Turn ons flags '|30|32|40|44|49|10|52|11|54|14|55|56|60|' '|4|11|12|14|16|18|30|32|48|6|10|56|45|'
Turn ons for others flags '<paid_delete>' ''
Turn ons abstract '<paid_delete>' ''
Looking for flags '||' '|47|50|56|71|75|77|78|80|55|57|67|74|'
Looking for others flags '<paid_delete>' ''
Looking for others abstract '<paid_delete>' 'I would like to meet a woman who likes to laugh, have fun and be happy. If you want to hang out with a smart, funny, sensual man, let's connect.'
Photo NULL NULL
Security question 2 2
Security answer '<paid_delete>' 'xxxxxxxx'

So it appears from the leaked databases that if you paid $19 to delete an account a number of columns in your record would be obliterated by a "<paid_delete>" entry – but, crucially, your GPS coordinates would not be removed, nor would your city, state, country, weight, height, date of birth, whether you smoke and/or like a drink, your gender, your ethnicity, what turns you on, and other bits and pieces.

And if you didn't pay the 19 bucks, everything was eventually leaked online by the website's hackers. According to the databases, just 185,948 accounts were marked as deleted.

Presumably ALM kept these details on file, even if you paid to delete your account, so it could get a picture of how old its users are, where they are from, what sort of person they are, and so on.

"Reportedly, among the 'dumped' data was data of individuals who paid a fee of $19 to have AshleyMadison.com scrub their profiles from the site, but whose profiles had apparently not been scrubbed," the lawsuit in California reads.

"Needless to say, this dumping of sensitive personal and financial information is bound to have catastrophic effects on the lives of the website's users."

Filed on behalf of American users of the site with the backing of an unnamed "John Doe" user from Los Angeles, the complaint would seek to collect unspecified damages 'in excess of $5,000,000' for the John Doe and other members who signed on to be part of the class action.

"This massive data breach could have been prevented had Defendants taken the necessary and reasonable precautions to protect its users' information by, for example, encrypting the data entrusted to it by its users on a database level so that any information hacked and downloaded appeared in the encrypted format," the complaint reads.

"Defendants were aware or should have been aware of the need to secure users' information, especially in light of the recent rise of massive security breaches on the Internet and the fact that the information contained on its servers is particularly sensitive."

ALM is already facing a class-action lawsuit in its home country of Canada. The Toronto-based company was hit last week with a class-action suit filed on behalf of 50 Canadian users exposed by the dump. ®

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