Petraeus Resignation Highlights The Importance Of Privacy, And Our Lack Of It

NPR has an interesting article on the privacy implications of the Petraeus scandal. The former commander of the US military’s Central Command and then-CIA director had been very carefully conducting an affair with a journalist. Rather than writing each other emails using their own addresses, they created a GMail account in which they would write draft emails: Petraeus would write a draft, log out, then Mrs. Broadwell would log in, read the draft, and write her own. Pretty crafty, but given that he knew all kinds of terrorist tricks from his manhunts, it was maybe not crafty enough. Regardless, the whole thing would’ve probably worked, except that the FBI got involved, and this is where the lack of our electronic privacy comes into focus.

David Petraeus and his wife, Holly Knowlton


We’ve seen before why everyone needs privacy from the government, and Petraeus is a prime argument for it: he did nothing illegal or even, as far as his job, unethical. Yet he was forced to resign because his mistress sent threats to another woman, which led the FBI to their draft GMail account. Very easily at that, because the feds have the power to read all your email that’s older than six months, just by asking. With a warrant, they can read anything of yours that’s online.

In this age, that basically means your whole life. David and Paula should’ve stuck to old-fashioned paper mail and burned the letters or even kept them — no warrant against Mrs. Broadwell would’ve covered searching Petraeus’ property. So in the leap from paper to electronic mail, our privacy has been eroded so much that one of the most powerful figures in the country was brought down by accident. Imagine how much damage the feds can do to you if they actually try.

David Petraeus and his mistress, Paula Broadwell


Of course, technology giveth as much as it taketh away. There are much better alternatives to clandestine communication than a draft folder in a bogus email account. Lifehacker and Gizmodo both have articles on what they could’ve done better:

  • Used a VPN to hide their IP addresses
  • Used encryption, perhaps through a service like Hushmail, to keep the FBI (or anyone) from reading the racy emails — at least for a few years, anyway, until they break the encryption
  • Used a disposable email account that automatically destroys emails after 10 minutes
  • Used text messages written in code and then deleted

But given the considerable hoops that they would’ve had to jump through just to not be accidentally outed, perhaps it’s time to revisit the extent of law enforcement’s snooping powers, and the ease with which they can be wielded. And given that just a month prior to this incident, several people’s homosexuality got outed by accident on Facebook, our everyday technology needs to have more privacy protection built in from the beginning also.

Oh, and if all this resonates with you like a tuning fork, donate to EPIC.

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From NPR, Lifehacker and Gizmodo

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