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Ashley Madison hacked, users threatened with exposure

Last Updated Jul 20, 2015 12:21 PM EDT

Ashley Madison, a controversial online social network that gears itself towards married people seeking to have affairs, has been hacked, and the company that owns it is being threatened with exposure of users' personal information.

Hackers have threatened to reveal customers' sexual fantasies and financial information if the website is not shut down, according to the Krebs on Security, an online cyber-security information site.

CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger said in an appearance on "CBS This Morning" that 37 million people use AshleyMadison.com. The site is owned by Avid Life Media, which has confirmed the hack.

Use of the site is largely free, but there are several features (such as chatting) that cost extra. For example, registered users may elect to pay an extra $19 fee to get their data scrubbed.

The company has collected millions offering the service, but the hackers are claiming that this scrubbing is not occurring. Schlesinger reports the hackers want the website shut down.

The hackers appear to be engaging in blackmail, but their exact reasoning is unknown.

"I think the motivation for the hackers is to embarrass the company," Schlesinger said. "Is this somebody who is a disgruntled spouse of someone using the site? It does seem very specific to the company. They call out the Chief Technology Officer, saying it's not your fault.

"The company believes it's somebody who was either a contractor, maybe a former employee, who wants to embarrass the company."

In a statement, the company apologized for what it called an "unprovoked and criminal intrusion into our customers' information." It said it had launched an investigation involving leading computer security experts and was working with law enforcement.

"We have always had the confidentiality of our customers' information foremost in our minds, and have had stringent security measures in place, including working with leading IT vendors from around the world. As other companies have experienced, these security measures have unfortunately not prevented this attack to our system," the company said.

Earlier this spring, the company was talking about going public. One concern raised was that, if you're going to go public, you've got to show the investment community that you can protect data.

"I think this pushes those plans back quite some time," Schlesinger said.

In an interview on CBSN last month, Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman sounded confident about the plans.

"Shares in affairs are something that people want to get their hands on," Biderman said. "We are in every cultural corner of the globe."

Biderman has a point. Ashley Madison, whose slogan is "Life is short. Have an affair," is active in 46 countries and rakes in more than $100 million a year.

As for taking the blame for destroying relationships worldwide, Biderman said his conscience is clear.

"I think people, unfortunately, strayed long before we created Ashley Madison, and so there's a lot of shooting the messenger," Biderman said. "We're just fulfilling a void that exists in the marketplace."

According to a 2005 survey published by the Society of Clinical Psychology, 17.7 percent of all married people cheat, and, overall, nearly twice as many men cheat than women.

"CBS This Morning" co-anchor Gayle King reports that one of the hackers said: "Too bad for these men, they're cheating dirt bags that deserve no such discretion."

But, as Ashley Madison points out, the hack attack is still breaking the law.

The company said Monday they have temporarily shut down.