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Ashley Madison true story: Explaining the real-life controversy depicted in new documentary series

The new Netflix documentary "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" recounts the launch of the infidelity dating website and its infamous hack in 2015.
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal.
Netflix's "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" examines the fallout from the 2015 hack that exposed people who had signed up for accounts on Ashley Madison, a dating website for people seeking to cheat on their spouses.Netflix

Ashley Madison, the notorious dating website that reveled in its controversial image, had millions of people sweating in 2015 when it was revealed that its user list had been hacked.

The rise of the popular online dating site, which facilitates extramarital affairs, and the fallout from the hack are the subject of the new Netflix documentary series "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal," which starts streaming on Wednesday, May 15.

Told through interviews with former employees, customers, jilted spouses and journalists, the three-part documentary also delves into who was behind the hack and the real-life consequences for people who were outed when the so-called Ashley Madison list was leaked.

Here's what to know about the real-life story depicted in the documentary:

Ashley Madison
Sam Rader, a YouTube vlogger who was caught up in the Ashley Madison scandal in 2015, in a scene from "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal."Netflix

What is Ashley Madison?

Formed in 2001 by Darren Morgenstern, the Toronto-based company is an online dating service for married people seeking to cheat on their spouses. Its famous tag line says, "Life is short. Have an affair.”

The documentary series explains that the site was free for women to join, while charging men for "credits" they can spend to privately message women on the site. (TODAY.com wasn't able to determine the site's current pricing model.)

The name of the business came from combining the two most popular female names at the time, according to the founder’s brother.

In the series, former employees say the philosophy behind the company was that, in the founder's view, people cheating on each other was commonplace. Ashley Madison was simply meeting a need by facilitating it, while promising secrecy and security.

Launched a decade before casual dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Grindr became popular, the site was considered an unabashed novelty.

"They’d say, 'Who’s your biggest competitor?' And I’d say, 'The Bible,'" former Ashley Madison vice president of sales Evan Back says in the film.

Ashley Madison was also known for racy commercials that were often banned from airing on major networks.

The owners boasted that it had 37 million users by 2015 and had launched in more than 40 countries and 12 languages, according to the series.

How did Ashley Madison's list of users get out?

In 2015, the company was hacked by a group calling itself The Impact Team.

The group, which some in the film theorize may have been just one person, demanded that Ashley Madison fold its business in 30 days or risk its client list being released on the so-called dark web.

The company did not comply, and the hackers followed through on the threat, releasing the names of tens of millions of people who had signed up for Ashley Madison accounts.

The leaked data included information for people who believed they had permanently deleted their accounts with the site, according to the docuseries.

The hackers then followed with another data dump that included credit card details, nude photos and more of its users' private information.

They also released CEO Noel Biderman's private and business emails, apparently exposing that he'd been having affairs, despite his many claims otherwise.

The series also depicts how the company brought in cyber security experts and law enforcement agents to help crack the identity of The Impact Team — with little success.

What was the fallout from the Ashley Madison hack?

Journalists and curious members of the public began combing through the list of clients in search of familiar names. Some users also reported being contacted by extortionists who wanted payment for not releasing their personal information.

Jeff Ashton, the Florida state attorney who prosecuted the Casey Anthony case, publicly apologized after his name surfaced on the so-called list.

"Jersey Shore" star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi denied that her husband, Jionni LaValle, had an account following reports that his email address had been connected to the service.

Strikingly, two suicides may have been linked to the leak, Toronto police officials announced at the time.

The widow of a New Orleans baptist preacher who died by suicide amid the breach appears in the documentary and discusses the tragic aftermath.

Before the hack, Biderman, the site's CEO, appeared on news and talk shows — often with his wife by his side — to promote, and defend, the site. He portrayed himself as happily married and in a monogamous relationship.

But his hacked emails appeared to show he was not the faithfully married man he portrayed himself to be, according to the documentary.

Biderman is not interviewed in the documentary and resigned as CEO in 2015.

Biderman told the filmmakers through a spokesperson that he "remains a committed husband and father."

Websites were also created that allowed people to search anyone's name or email address to see if it appeared on the Ashley Madison leak, potentially wreaking havoc on millions of marriages.

Who appears in 'Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal'?

Former employees on the business and IT side of Ashley Madison discuss the fallout from the hack, including what they say were lax security measures despite the company's assurances to customers that their data was safe.

The company's business tactics are also explored, including its claims of having a significant number of female users, and how former employees say they dodged suspicious spouses calling to ask about credit card charges.

A popular Christian YouTube couple, Sam and Nia Rader, share their story of the emotional devastation their marriage suffered after Sam's information appeared in leaked data.

Meanwhile, another couple who both used the service open up about why they didn't have any problem with their spouse being on Ashley Madison.

Is Ashley Madison still in business?

Yes, the company still operates but is now owned by the Toronto-based Ruby Life.

Ruby Life also runs the dating website Cougar Life, which "helps vibrant, mature women connect with younger, interested men," according to its website.

Ruby Life declined to comment to Netflix about any of the claims in the documentary.

The company said in a 2020 report that Ashley Madison now has more than 70 million members.

“Rather than berating people who joined Ashley Madison we were much more interested in exploring why they were drawn to the site,” director Toby Paton said about the new series in a news release.

“What were they looking for? What was going on in their relationships? And, crucially: What was their partner’s side of the story?”

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