For many people, being exposed as a member of Ashley Madison (formerly the best and most secure site to have an affair) means only public humiliation and serious talks with their partner. Federal government workers, however, have something even more to be worried about: the possible loss of their jobs.
It’s hard to imagine someone being fired for cheating on their spouse—after all, it’s not your boss’ business unless the person you’re cheating with is her partner—but the government won’t be firing people for (what many perceive as) questionable morals and fuckwittery. In fact, the government may not be firing anyone at all. But the powers that be are going through the leaked names with a fine-toothed comb. And if they do choose to fire people, it’ll be due to their “inappropriate personal computer use on government time.”
The Washington Post reports that while using Ashley Madison may be a “murkier” issue than accessing pornography via a government account, users who made the mistake of signing up with their work email—why would anyone do this? Always create a “for porn only” email address! Email is free!—may still be disciplined for accessing explicit information that “brings discredit to the agency.”
The rules vary on the kind of personal use of work computers that’s allowed on government time. Mostly, they’re more restrictive than a private company’s. It’s okay to make a doctor’s appointment, call the babysitter, tell your spouse you’ll be home late. It’s okay to check on your investments during the stock market’s current nosedive. These are technically called “private use” exceptions to authorized uses of government property.
Things you can’t do from your government e-mail address: Endorse a product or service, sell a product for profit, advertise or do anything else that “interferes with the agency’s mission or brings discredit to the agency.” Pornography, by being sexually explicit, falls into this category.
The problem officials are having, however, is deciding whether Ashley Madison falls into the category of pornography beyond the shadow of a doubt and whether punishing people for going to the site is prosecuting their theft of company time or their perceived lack of morality.
Here’s an example of the problem firing someone for their use of Ashley Madison presents:
Let’s say an employee is having an affair and e-mailing his or her lover from work, but the infidelity did not start on Ashley Madison. Why does that person fall under the radar of a supervisor, while the employee with the hacked e-mail address does not? A federal employee could be in an open relationship. Or going through a divorce and testing the waters. That’s still doing something other than work at work. But it suddenly seems more innocuous than the most salacious affairs we can imagine, federal personnel experts said.
The only question is: why did these people use their government email addresses? Not doing that could have helped them avoid all this. And it would have helped those in the military, too, because those serving in the armed forces can be punished for infidelity.
The Post reports that an estimated 15,000 federal accounts have been found in the hack (including one for Barack Obama, which was a hoax) and that it will take government agencies some time to decide what they’re going to do. Experts suspect any disciplinary action taken against government employees will have more to do with the amount of time they spent on Ashley Madison while at work/on work devices rather than anything else. The investigation will continue but agencies won’t be “rushing into anything,” according to a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Ashley Madison