August 31st, 2015
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
And it is impossible to understand software if all you have is part of the database. I’ve had to struggle with this issue many times, at various companies. Apparently Annalee Newitz was bit by this as well.
The first thing I learned when I looked at the code was that the database Impact Team released on August 18, and on which I based my reporting about the number of active female users, was just a tiny portion of the actual member data collected by Ashley Madison. The code makes references to 550 data tables, but there are only 4 tables in the data from Impact Team. That radically changes the picture of what we’re actually seeing in the database.
When I first looked over the data, I wrongly assumed that I had all or most of the tables. As I wrote last week, I came across three columns in one of those tables called “bc_email_last_time,” “bc_chat_last_time,” and “email_reply_last_time.” After consulting with two analysts, and determining that these columns were the only ones with names typically used to track user activity, I concluded that the datestamps in those columns referred to the last time people checked their Ashley Madison messages, or tried to start a chat. And when I saw the radical disparity between numbers of men with a datestamp and the number of women, I interpreted it to mean that men were emailing a lot with bots, and women barely ever emailed anyone at all.
But I was wrong. It’s a lot weirder than that. Those columns in the data don’t record human activity at all. They record the last time a bot—or “engager” in Ashley Madison’s internal parlance—emailed or chatted with a member of the site.
…Mr. Falcon pointed out that there’s actually a special bot service, called “RunChatBotXmppGuarentee.service.php,” apparently designed just for interactions with customers who paid the premium $250 for a “guaranteed affair.” When I checked the code, I found Mr. Falcon was right. It appears that this bot would chat up the man, urge him to pay credits, and then pass him along to what’s called an “affiliate.” Likely the affiliate is a third party that provides a real person for the man to chat with. It might also be connecting him to an escort service.
…After I published my first article about Ashley Madison data, I got a several dozen emails from women and men who told me their stories about using the service. Some agreed with my assessment that the place is a sexbot farm. But many women described how they’d enjoyed the service for years, and men talked in glowing terms about all the amazing women they’d met, including some who fell in love and formed relationships after their “affair.”
Several women specifically urged me to investigate how “women seeking women” were handled in the database and code. Many had met other women for threesomes with men, or just for a lesbian romp outside their heterosexual marriages. I decided to take their advice, because now it was clear that a lot more women were active in the membership than I initially believed.
What I found was that there are over 770,000 women seeking women in the database, out of 5.5 million women overall, and none of them are hosts. That’s 14 percent, much higher than the estimated 1.5 percent of lesbians (and .9 percent of bisexuals) in the U.S. population. These may not be active accounts, but they don’t appear to be Ashley Madison engagers either. If there are real women behind these accounts, we know they aren’t getting bombarded with bot messages. Bots avoid women. And comments in the code reveal that “woman seeking woman” profiles aren’t shown to straight men. It would seem that the only members of Ashley Madison who aren’t inundated by spam and randos are women who seek trysts with other women or couples.
There are also about 345,000 men seeking men in the database, and we know from the patch I mentioned earlier that developers were working hard to prevent the engagers from harassing these guys too. It’s possible, as one person put it to me in email, that Ashley Madison was actually a pretty decent hookup site for gay people—but that was mostly because the system was designed to ignore them.