When hacker group Impact Team released the Ashley Madison data, they asserted that “thousands” of the women’s profiles were fake. Later, this number got blown up in news stories that asserted “90-95%” of them were fake, though nobody put forth any evidence for such an enormous number. So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.
What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.
Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.
It’s also a matter of public record that some percentage of the profiles are less than real. A few years ago, a former employee of Ashley Madison sued the company in Canada over her terrible work conditions. She claimed that she’d gotten repetitive stress injuries in her hands after the company hired her to create 1,000 fake profiles of women in three months, written in Portuguese, to attract a Brazilian audience. The case was settled out of court, and Ashley Madison claimed that the woman never made any fake profiles.
Still, there is a clause in the Ashley Madison terms of service that notes that “some” people are using the site purely “for entertainment” and that they are “not seeking in person meetings with anyone they meet on the Service, but consider their communications with users and Members to be for their amusement.” The site stops short of saying these are fake people, but does admit that many profiles are for “amusement only.”
But the second most popular IP address, found in 80,805 profiles, was a different story. This IP address, 127.0.0.1, is well-known to anyone who works with computer systems as a loopback interface. To the rest of us, it’s known simply as “home,” your local computer. Any account with that IP address was likely created on a “home” computer at Ashley Madison. Interestingly, 68,709 of the profiles created with that IP address were female, and the remaining 12,000 were either male or had nothing in the gender field.
Then, three data fields changed everything. The first field, called mail_last_time, contained a timestamp indicating the last time a member checked the messages in their Ashley Madison inbox. If a person never checked their inbox, the field was blank. But even if they’d checked their messages only once, the field contained a date and time. About two-thirds of the men, or 20.2 million of them, had checked the messages in their accounts at least once. But only 1,492 women had ever checked their messages. It was a serious anomaly.
The pattern was reflected in another data field, too. This one, called chat_last_time contained the timestamp for the last time a member had struck up a conversation using the Ashley Madison chat system. Roughly 11 million men had engaged in chat, but only 2400 women had.
Yet another field, reply_mail_last_time, showed a similar disparity. This field contained the time when a member had last replied to a message from another person on Ashley Madison. 5.9 million men had done it, and only 9700 women had.
What all these fields have in common is that they measure user activity. They show what happened after the account profile was created, and how an actual person used it by checking messages, chatting, or replying to messages. They measure what you might call signatures of real human behavior. Only a paltry number of women’s accounts actually looked human.
Overall, the picture is grim indeed. Out of 5.5 million female accounts, roughly zero percent had ever shown any kind of activity at all, after the day they were created.
Either way, we’re left with data that suggests Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.
The first question is whether or not Ashley Madison was a fraud from the get go.
The second question is how many other of the social networking sites out there are doing the same thing and sucking money from venture capitalists.