Ashley Madison Probed By FTC Over Use Of ‘Fembots’

Coming nearly a year after the revealing hack of its users’ personal information, the infamous infidelity-encouraging online dating site, Ashley Madison, is now under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for its use of “fembots,” which are automated web bots posing as legitimate females intended to deceive the website’s customers.

Reuters reports that Ashley Madison’s parent company, Avid Life Media, hired two new executives last April in an effort to restore the website’s unscrupulous image. While under probe by the FTC, new CEO Rob Segal apologized for the website’s previous gaps in protection, explaining that they are exploring options to increase user security.

Prior to the current FTC probe, Ashley Madison found itself a hot-button news item last August when a massive data breach exposed over 25-gigabytes worth of its users’ information. The website’s practice of saving all information — including names, addresses and transaction records — sparked a broad fear of public humiliation among the site’s user base. The 2015 hack was perpetrated by a group calling itself “The Impact Team,” who then released the stolen information on BitTorrent and posted it to the dark web.

One of the most covered aspects of the 2015 breach was the disclosure that reality television personality (19 Kids and Counting) and evangelical political activist, Josh Duggar, had a paid Ashley Madison account since early 2013. The adulterous revelation followed Duggar’s resignation from conservative lobbying group Family Research Council after his admission of molesting minors, including four of his sisters.

Josh Duggar
The FTC’s present-day probe of Ashley Madison may concern its widespread use of bots in the website’s engagement with its primarily male clientele. Gizmodo reported that the site’s use of bots first emerged in early 2012, prompting an initial inquiry by California’s attorney general. Indeed, the so-called fembots were literally bots disguised as women to bolster the numbers of perceived females available at Ashley Madison.

At first, the company blamed any bot presence on illicit activity by fraudulent accounts attempting to mislead users. As Gizmodo details, succeeding internal reports showed that the website’s male users, who were paying for the service in order to contact interested females, were instead speaking to fembots over a quarter of the time.

While admitting that the complete scope of the FTC’s probe is unknown, Ashley Madison published a blog post yesterday describing their efforts to revamp the security and public perception of the site. In the post, Avid Life Media president James Millership stated that they would no longer utilize bots in recruiting customers.

“My understanding is that bots are widespread in the industry, but they are no longer being used, and will not be used, at Avid Life Media and Ashley Madison.”

Ashley Madison website
The blog post on Monday further stated that Ashley Madison ceased using bots in 2014 in North America, continuing their use abroad until late last year. Avid Life Media executives Segal and Millership also claimed they are unaware how heavily the FTC’s probe will focus on the website’s previous use of bots.

Only time will tell what the FTC probe into Ashley Madison will uncover. For now, Avid Life Media is doing their best to overhaul the brand. The company currently faces a massive amount of lawsuits from previous users stemming from the 2015 hack. Last year’s widely-publicized breach cost Ashley Madison more than 25 percent of its revenue.

In yesterday’s update from Ashley Madison, Segal added that the current climate of cyber security dictates users’ needs for advanced security mechanisms both at Ashley Madison and around the web.

“Like all businesses in today’s security reality, Avid Life Media has been investing even more heavily in security enhancements and privacy safeguards to deal with evolving cyber threats over the past year, and that will continue.”

[Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images]