Executives Thought They Found the Ashley Madison Hacker, but They Were Wrong

Top executives at Ashley Madison were convinced one man was behind the data breach. That man took his life months before the hack.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author
By

May 13 2024, Published 10:32 p.m. ET

A man looks at the Ashley Madison website
Source: Getty Images

According to Scientific American, the magazine geared towards citizens of the U.S. who love science, people cheat for a variety of reasons that will immediately leave you questioning your own relationship. Sorry to do this to you! Despite the many reasons people have an affair, there appears to be one throughline. The adulterer seems to feel as if something is missing in their existing relationship. To be clear, this amorphous absent thing isn't always the fault of the partner.

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People knee deep in duplicity are often getting something from this new physical or emotional tete-a-tete that they aren't receiving with their actual partner. This doesn't make it right or wrong, but it's always important to pull back that curtain and stare straight into the treacherous eyes of the Wizard of Oz. Once upon a time the Ashley Madison "dating" site claimed to help men find women to cheat with. Then in 2015, there was a data breach. Did they ever find who hacked Ashley Madison?

Production still from Netflix's 'Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, & Scandal'
Source: Netflix
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Who hacked Ashley Madison? We may never know.

As of the time of this writing, we still don't know who is responsible for the Ashley Madison data breach. What we do know is who the company thought was behind it. Here's the thing, their only suspect committed suicide before the breach. With that in mind, why did the former CEO of Ashley Madison point a finger at this man in particular?

Investigative journalist Brian Krebs was asked by Hulu and Wall to Wall Productions to consult on a documentary about Ashley Madison that was released in 2023. On his own website, Krebs later published some interesting findings while researching for the documentary. He found that most of the internal emails released during the breach belonged to Ashley Madison's CEO, Noel Biderman. This information was given to Krebs by Jeremy Bullock, a data scientist also working on the series.

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Bullock found that a large portion of Biderman's emails, which spanned three years, were from one man and they were very anti-semitic. These emails were sent by a former employee by the name of William Brewster Harrison who was hired in March 2010 to help spread the upsetting word of the sassy site. According to Krebs, "There is evidence to suggest that in 2010 Harrison was directed to harass the owner of Ashleymadisonsucks.com into closing the site or selling the domain to Ashley Madison."

When that didn't work, Biderman found a workaround in the Canadian trademark laws that allowed him to purchase and repurpose the domain. Harrison also ran several websites not related to Ashley Madison that were mostly used to harass "all those sorry a-- corporate executives out there profiting from your hard work, organs, lives, ideas, intelligence, and wallets," per Harrison himself.

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When Harrison was fired from Ashley Madison in November 2011, he began is hate-fueled campaign against Biderman in early 2012. In August 2012, former sex worker Maggie McNeill published a piece about Ashley Madison outing the number of bots masquerading as women on the site. This prompted an internal investigation into who could have provided McNeill with this information. It was soon discovered that Harris still had all-powerful administrator access. It was assumed he provided McNeill with that information.

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William Brewster Harrison took his own life in March 2014.

The actual data breach occurred in July 2015. For good reason, Biderman and other executives at Ashley Madison thought Harrison was behind it. What they didn't know was Harrison had committed suicide on March 5, 2014. Four days after the breach, Krebs was messaged through the contact form on his website. It contained all the leaked data from Ashley Madison, including Biderman's cell phone number.

Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman lays in bed shushing
Source: Getty Images
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Krebs called Biderman who already knew what was doing on. "We’re on the doorstep of [confirming] who we believe is the culprit, and unfortunately that may have triggered this mass publication," he told Krebs. The person or individuals who claimed responsibility called themselves the Impact Team. Biderman thought it was Harrison, but he was obviously wrong.

Krebs didn't find out about Harrison's suicide until nearly a decade later when he tried to track him down. This led him to Harrison's stepmother who told him Harrison shot himself. "I’ve heard all those stories you just mentioned," she said to Krebs. "Will was severely mentally ill. He was probably as close to a sociopath as I can imagine anyone being. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic who wouldn’t take his medication." She said Harrison was Jewish though he didn't practice.

Krebs admitted this is largely an unsatisfying conclusion to this story. However he did provide one silver lining. At one point, Harrison was married and had a son. His ex-wife had since remarried and her new husband adopted her son.

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