Ashley Madison misled users with a fake security award

The site showed the award before getting hit by a massive breach last year, watchdogs say

It’s never a good sign when a website markets itself with a phony security award. But that’s what Ashley Madison did prior to last year’s massive data breach.

On Monday, privacy officials in Canada and Australia found that the Canadian adultery website used deceptive and confusing practices to make customers think the service was secure.

Privacy authorities from both countries have been investigating Ashley Madison following last year’s hack, which exposed personal data on 36 million users, including names, credit card numbers, and in some cases, their sexual fantasies. 

Although Ashley Madison had been promoting discreet extramarital affairs, the site itself used security practices that fell short of accepted standards and privacy laws, the investigation found.

One problem was the use of a medal icon on the website labeled “trusted security award.” The company behind Ashley Madison later admitted that the award was fake and removed it, the privacy officials said.

The officials also took issue with the way Ashley Madison retained user data. The website stored all profile information indefinitely unless users paid for a full deletion -- even if the account had been deactivated. None of this was clearly stated in Ashley Madison’s privacy policy.

Under Canadian and Australian privacy laws, no website should be able to keep user information indefinitely when the account has been deactivated, the investigators said.

On Tuesday, Ashley Madison’s owner, Ruby, agreed to make changes recommended by the investigation. They include providing a no-cost option to delete a users profile. Previously, the company charged 19 Canadian dollars (about US$15).

If the company doesn't comply with the recommendations, Canadian and Australian authorities said they can force their countries' courts to intervene. 

Ruby, formerly known as Avid Life Media, is also undergoing a third-party review to examine its privacy protections and plans to introduce other security measures. Despite last year's breach, the company claims Ashley Madison has 47 million users. 

But even as privacy officials in Canada and Australia have concluded their own probe of the company, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also reportedly investigating the Ashley Madison site.

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