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November 19, 2012

Not for your eyes only

If even the head of the CIA can’t protect his secrets, what hope is there for the rest of us?

After a marathon election, there’s really nothing better than a sex scandal to get us back into the swing of things.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or in the Reg), here’s a quick rundown of what happened: Last year, former high school homecoming queen, valedictorian, all-star basketball player, Harvard grad, and mom of two (apparently these people actually exist) Paula Broadwell wrote a dissertation–turned–New York Times bestselling biography of General David Petraeus.

Earlier this year, Broadwell allegedly used an anonymous Gmail address to send half a dozen “threatening and harassing emails” to Jill Kelley, a “social liaison” to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Kelley reached out to Frederick Humphries—a pal at the FBI who had previously sent Jill shirtless photos of himself (naturally)—to look into the matter. Imagine doing that every time someone sends you an anonymous question on Tumblr.

Humphries’s FBI search led investigators to email accounts associated with the IP address of Broadwell’s computer, an easily traceable piece of information (merely googling “IP” pulls up your public address). One of these accounts turned out to be her and Petraeus’s center for strategic sex planning. In it, the two used a draft folder to “secretly” exchange messages without ever sending any (a common communication technique, as any CIA operative knows, of many terrorists). Needless to say, those messages were found, and Petraeus stepped down soon after.

Supporting actors in this compelling saga include General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor as USFOR-A Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (who’s being investigated for “inappropriate communication” with Jill Kelley), and Natalie Kelley, Jill’s twin sister. The soap opera feel of the ordeal has definitely helped pull public attention away from the profoundly negative implications that it may have. Beyond the beltway (and perhaps below the belt), Petraeus’s affair has significant consequences on our individual safety and privacy at home, as well as our collective national intelligence, security, and reputation abroad.

First, we should use this as an opportunity to reacknowledge that none of us—not even four-star generals and Harvard homecoming queens—are perfect. Indeed, given the kind of risk-taking ego required for that level of success, it is perhaps especially those kinds of people who are bound to have the most imperfect personal lives. Though Clinton, Edwards, Gingrich, Spitzer, Weiner, and now, Petraeus, stand out as the most publicized recent examples, our federal government has actually seen over thirty sex scandals in the twenty-first century alone—and that doesn’t even begin to count all of the other instances of personal or professional public demise. Such incompetence and corruption are found everywhere, making checks and balances necessary at all levels of government. Though trust in our leaders is both necessary and important, blind trust is anything but.

More importantly, there is the over-arching issue of personal privacy. Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal authorities only need a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor—not a judge, and not a warrant—to gain access to electronic messages that are six months old or older. In this case, investigators were able to use the IP address associated with just six allegedly “threatening emails” to gain access to practically all of Broadwell’s inbox and outbox. Though newer messages do require a warrant, the comprehensive and generally extrajudicial nature of these investigations renders this distinction more or less irrelevant.

If Google’s recent Transparency Report is any indication, the government had been doing this a lot lately. The United States made 7,969 Google account access requests (out of 20,938 made in total, more than any other country) in the first six months of 2012 alone. Google also complied with 90 percent of US–based requests, more than it did for any other country. Since Google started accepting these requests in the second half of 2009, the United States has targeted a total of 16,281 accounts, or almost half of the global total of 34,614. I wonder how many of those inquests were started by a couple of, ahem, “threatening emails.”

These days, everyone mixes their private and professional lives online. So it’s more important than ever that we realize that the Internet compiles our information into personally identifiable catalogues of indelible clicks and communications—everyone has some kind of skeleton in her cybercloset. I find it deeply unsettling to think that someone with the “right” connections (like Jill Kelley) could trigger a far-reaching federal investigation over as trivial of a matter as a few vaguely hostile messages. Anyone’s secrets are fair game, it seems, and with the right friends, anyone can expose them.

Though this investigation is highly unlikely to turn up anything important for the FBI, it has shed light on a key truth for everyone else: Even (and especially) on the Internet, privacy is nowhere close to guaranteed.

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