Does the internet make cheats of us all?
As tens of thousands of Irish men and women sweat it out after an infidelity website was hacked, we discover it has never been easier to have an affair
Forget lipstick on your collar - now it's the USB stick in your computer that could tell a tale on Ireland's adulterers. From extramarital dating websites to hook-up apps, having an affair has never been easier.
As the Ashley Madison hacking scandal proved this week, however, getting caught has never been easier either.
Up to 115,000 Irish people are currently thought to be sweating it after the world's biggest infidelity website was breached by a group calling itself The Impact Team.
Threatening to expose 37 million adulterers worldwide unless the controversial site is shut down, hackers warned: "We will release all customer records, profiles with all the customers' secret sexual fantasies, nude pictures, and conversations and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses."
Speaking to a number of Irish media outlets, the publicity-baiting website yesterday maintained an uncharacteristic silence over just how many married men and women here could be caught up in the hacking scandal, claiming it didn't "have information on specific questions at the moment".
Back in 2010, it was a different story, when creator Noel Biderman told the Irish Independent how he planned to turn Ireland into hotbed for adultery in Europe.
"We went live in Ireland first to test if the service was viable in Britain and other parts of Europe," explained Biderman, who founded Ashley Madison in 2001 after reportedly discovering that a third of people on dating websites were already married.
"Within four months, 18,000 Irish people had signed - imagine what we can do when we start to market it.
"If any of the marketing techniques we've been able to execute in Canada, the US and Australia are allowed in Ireland, I think we'll have 100,000 members pretty quickly."
Despite keeping a fairly low profile this side of the Atlantic since then, today the company claims to have leapfrogged that figure whilst helping some of Ireland's 1.7 million husbands and wives to play away from home.
In 2011, just a year after rolling out its infamous 'Life is short, have an affair' tagline here, it reported a dizzying 170pc growth in Ireland, with 27,893 Dublin natives and 4,127 Cork residents apparently among its nationwide membership of 40,000 people.
But earlier last month, a 'global infidelity map' published on the website's official Twitter account sensationally suggested that around 2.5pc of the Irish population - or 115,000 people - are now signed up to the cheating service.
In January, a $20m lawsuit taken against Ashley Madison by a former employee who claimed she had damaged her wrist while typing up hundreds of fake female profiles was thrown out by an Ontario court.
Closer to home, private investigator James Delaney says he's not at all shocked by the company's latest Irish figures, which would make us the third biggest users of the site in Europe, and the tenth biggest users in the world.
"I wasn't a bit surprised to hear that Ashley Madison has 115,000 Irish members," says the founder of Spystore.ie - a Saggart-based company specialising in spy gadgets such as GPS trackers and digital recorders. "Over the years, I've caught hundreds of men and women here in the act of cheating on their partner.
"In the past, people would hire me to follow their partner to see if they were having an affair. Now they just go on to our website and buy a tracker for the car or an iPhone recovery stick to recover deleted text messages.
"One of our most popular products is hidden software starting from €100 that allows you to see everything your partner is doing online," he tells. "Some of the stories we've heard back are absolutely horrifying.
"Usually it's the people you'd least expect. Often we joke, 'There's no way that person is doing anything', then they turn out to be worse than anyone else."
MaritalAffair.ie, Meet2Cheat.ie and Gleeden.com are just some of the other websites dedicated to helping unfaithful spouses here do the dirt. And that's not to mention hook-up app Tinder.
Speaking to the Irish Independent after Gleeden launched here, also in 2010, one anonymous female user from Dublin explained its appeal: "I can't go out at night without my husband being suspicious, that's why I use the internet.
"It's easier, faster and gives you more choice.
"When you meet someone on Gleeden, you don't have to explain why you have to be discreet - everyone is in the same boat. And there's no risk of the other person looking for something more serious.
"But I'm still very careful not to get caught."
As Ashley Madison ironically battles to rebuild trust with its customers this week, others clearly aren't as worried, according to a spokesperson for the Data Protection Commissioner, who said that the office is "not in receipt of any queries on this matter".
Spystore.ie boss James Delaney reckons: "The Ashley Madison hack might make people think twice about using these kind of websites. Given that most people don't use their real personal details, I doubt too many people here are seriously worried. The biggest concern would be pictures getting out."
Indeed when the website first launched in Ireland, founder Noel Biderman confessed to being more concerned about opposition from the Catholic Church than hackers. "
As an entrepreneur, that's my big concern over Ireland," he admitted. "We had a great amount of traction in Boston, where the Archdiocese tried to rally protesters.
"If, all of a sudden, there's this political storm that says to a TV or radio station, 'Don't take these ads', then we're limited to speaking to people on the web - and that's not how we built our brand."
"Everywhere we've gone we've had people say 'This is wrong', and I'm almost positive the protests will be just as loud in Ireland," continued Biderman. "People can protest my business, but, behind closed doors, you can't stop somebody from having an affair."
Surviving an affair
As cheating website Ashley Madison battles to keep its members' personal details, including names and addresses, from being leaked online by hackers, it's a waiting game for thousands of Irish adulterers. Quickly deploying the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Avid Life Media, which owns the website, insists it's still one step ahead of the cyber criminals. But if Ireland's 115,000 members do end up having their dirty laundry aired in public - can a marriage ever survive such a betrayal?
"In today's society, where it is so difficult to legally and financially extricate oneself from an unhappy marriage, I'm not surprised that there are so many Irish people secretly seeking to have their needs met online," says marriage counsellor David Kavanagh of Avalon Relationship Counselling (avalonrc.com). "But people are fooling themselves if they think they can have both a happy marriage and a secret lover.
"A happy marriage is one in which you feel your needs - sexual and otherwise - are being met, end of story. If a husband or wife is seeking intimacy elsewhere, there are underlying problems with the relationship."
Studies show that eight out of 10 couples here have endured some form of infidelity. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Peter and Iris Robinson and Ryan and Stacey Giggs are just some of the high-profile couples to survive affair scandals. Ronan and Yvonne Keating, Eva Longoria and Tony Parker and Sandra Bullock and Jesse James are among those whose marriages didn't make it.
"Nowadays, it can feel like affairs are everywhere," says Sinead Warren, a Kildare-based psychotherapist and counsellor. "But infidelity has always gone on - in the past, it was just swept under the carpet more.
"Surviving an affair has nothing to do with gender or who strayed," she continues. "If a couple can address the meaning of the affair in therapy and recommit, I believe it's possible for them to move on, and become even closer."
More than a decade after confessing to having an affair with DJ Dan Peppe, TV presenter Zoë Ball told how her 16 year-marriage to DJ Norman Cook is stronger than ever.
"Norman is a very beautiful, big-hearted man to take me back after that," said the mum-of-two, who originally split from her husband before later patching things up. "He fought to get me back and it took a long time to sort it out. We've been through tricky moments, but I feel it would take something pretty mammoth to rock it now."
Designer Victoria Beckham has also claimed that rumours her husband David had a four-month fling with personal assistant Rebecca Loos in 2004 only bonded the couple more.
"It was a really tough time," admitted mum-of-four Posh. "But we've come out stronger and happier. It's even better now than when we were first married."
It may be cold comfort for potential victims of the Ashley Madison hack, and perhaps the true victims, their other halves, but marriage therapist Owen Connolly, who runs a private counselling practice in Stillorgan, confirms: "I've seen couples emerge from an affair with a richer relationship. In fact, some couples can go through a kind of second honeymoon period.
"Any couple who has gone through an affair really needs to talk out their issues in a safe, professional environment," he adds. "If a couple really love each other though, there's no reason why they shouldn't survive an affair."