After the Ashley Madison dump exposed millions of their users’ email addresses, it was only a matter of time before private companies developed a business plan to cash in on the leak.
Trustify, a small smartup of ten employees based in Washington, D.C., is a smartphone app that connects users with a network of private investigators, many who can be nearly immediately dispatched. Think Uber, but for hiring a professional to bring your Facebook creeping to the next level.
“For the last 150 years, [private investigators] were essentially a service of the wealthy to augment local police work — they demand high retainers, high hourly rates,” Founder and CEO Danny Boice told Rebel News. “We’ve essentially democratized it.”
For a starting price of $69, the app will hook you up with an investigator who can take on cases ranging from the basic (“Is my husband visiting this address after work?”) to full-blown, deep dive investigations (“Who are my birth parents?”).
Investigations surrounding infidelity comprised only about 25 percent of Trustify’s business, Boice said.
“A majority of our cases involve some kind of Internet investigation — my contractor bailed on me, can you track him down…people hiring a nanny,” Boice said. “That was our bread and butter — up until a few days ago.”
That’s when the company launched a new tool that allowed users to search for their email address among the millions disclosed in the Ashley Madison dump. Most of the company’s current cases revolve around the exposed data, he said.
“Most of our cases this month are people who are like, ‘I think I registered, I want to see if I’m named in the drop, and if I am, tell me what my exposure level is,’” Boice said, comparing it to political opposition research conducted on one’s own campaign. “Tell me everything that’s out there about me online and give me a detailed report about myself.”
“You Need an Expert.”
The company, both in an interview with its CEO Danny Boice and a Q&A on its website, maintains that offering the search tool isn’t a sly attempt to “exploit” profit from the privacy violations of millions, but to provide a service in high demand from its customers, both seeking information about themselves or a romantic partner.
“We owe it to our customers to make the data available to them, if they ask,” the website reads.
There is, of course, some truth to this: it is a public service to help the less computer literate among us determine whether one’s email address was disclosed in such a way. Boice said the tool was fielding 500 searches per second at its peak, which — taking the company at its word — would seemingly reflect a real demand.
Then again, that’s no reason to scare the absolute shit out of people, either. Those unfortunate enough to enter a matched email address on the service received this glaring, alarmist message from the company:
“YOU’VE BEEN COMPROMISED! NOW WHAT?” “Because you’ve been exposed, you need to know exactly what kind of information is out there. This kind of information can affect your job, love life, mortgages, and anything else where a background check is required. However, to truly understand the extent of how much damaging information is accessible about you online, you need an expert who knows where to look and has access to special databases unavailable to the general public. Get help from an online researcher and/or surveillance expert, who can identify the extent of the problem and explain how you can fix it before it has life-ruining consequences.
Your love life? Yeah, possibly. Your job? Maybe if you work in the military, but not likely.
Your mortgage, though?
“We were reacting to the press cycle from last week,” Boice wrote in a follow-up email. “There were numerous stories running about lenders, employers, etc. starting to search the Ashley Madison data potentially. We don’t know for a fact that they were doing that but it was a hot topic of conversation last week. That’s why we mentioned it.”
For what it’s worth, Boice did not provide any links to that kind of coverage and we couldn’t find any after some Googling. The company backpedaled Wednesday morning and removed some of the more alarmist language from their website after social media criticism.
“You or someone you know recently used our search tool to see if your email address was compromised in the Ashley Madison leak, and we confirmed that your details were exposed. This sensitive data can affect your love life, employment, and follow you across the web forever. There are ways to hide the exposed details [emphasis mine], but first you need to see what information can be found across the web. Talk with our experienced investigative consultants to learn how you can find our what incriminating information is available and could ruin your life.”
“Hide the exposed details” of the leak? Folks with basic Internet literacy would (or should) realize that it’s impossible to “hide” or “fix” the details of such a widely disseminated data dump — the Streisand effect is very real. Once data hits the Internet, the damage is almost always done.
Who might believe it’s possible, though? Scared, vulnerable and unsophisticated people alarmed by Trustify’s marketing, likely willing to pay a nominal fee to not “ruin [their] life.”
“We don’t advertise ourselves or pretend to be any kind of [online reputation] management company,” Boice said. “What we’re saying is: we’ll help you fix the situation. In other words, before your wife finds out about it, we’ll tell you exactly what’s in there.”
In other words, Trustify will help you “hide the exposed details” by neatly compiling them for you to share with your wife when she finds out about it later. OK.
“We Didn’t Make the Leak Available.”
It’s worth noting that nothing in Trustify’s marketing materials cautions the consumer that a positive match is actually not so incriminating — really, circumstantial evidence of an interest in an affair, at best. Users didn’t have to verify their emails to sign up with the service, and a large portion of those registered are obvious fakes. Gizmodo reports that most of the women named in the database never even used the service, and when you consider that nearly 90 to 95 percent of the users were male, a case could be made that very few hookups were happening on the site at all.
The data includes other, more incriminating information for sure — Gawker used credit card and billing address information to conclusively prove Josh Duggar used the site — but users without means of searching through the nearly 10 gigs of data on their own would have to pay Trustify to see what’s really out there.
Contrast this with the actual public service offered by CheckAshleyMadison.com. While you should be wary of entering your email address into any third-party search tool, it germanely reminds users to not “panic,” lays out some basic steps to protect your compromised data and offers straight forward explanations about what a positive match actually means.
As Glenn Greenwald notes:
“For numerous, obvious reasons, the fact that someone’s name appears in the Ashley Madison database does not mean they have engaged in marital infidelity. To begin with, it is easy to enter someone else’s name and email address, as happened to The Intercept’s Farai Chideya. Beyond that, there are all sorts of reasons someone may use this website without having cheated on their spouse. Some may use the site as pornography because it titillates them, or because they are tempted to cheat but are resisting the urge, or because they’re married but in a relationship where monogamy is not demanded, or because they’re researchers or journalists observing this precinct of online interaction, or countless other reasons.”
I asked Boice why it wasn’t extortion to make this sort of search tool publicly available, then charge people for information about how to protect themselves from its disclosure.
“Because we didn’t make [the leak] available,” he said. “We’re building this tool for our customers to see if they are exposed. I don’t have a problem with that.”
This article has been updated.