Petraeus scandal illustrates fragility of cyber privacy
SAN FRANCISCO -- The burgeoning scandal about sexual indiscretions at the top of the US military establishment has reinforced one of the clearest catechisms of the digital age: if you want something to remain secret never type it into a digital device.
The nation's top spy and one of its top soldiers seem to have forgotten this most basic rule, which is probably well known to every minor drug dealer, cheating spouse and even mischievious teenager hoping to keep their shenanigans private.
General David Petraeus, the director of the CIA, reportedly communicated via email with his mistress Paula Broadwell. They thought they were being clever by using a dummy email account that they both had access to and by saving drafts of their messages -- never actaully sending them to each other.
The scheme may have worked, had Broadwell not succumbed to the greatest enemy of illicit relationships: jealousy.
Usually it's the scorned spouse whose jealousy wields the axe, but in the case of Petraeus it was the mistress who was jealous of another woman she thought was vying for Petraeus' attention. Her threatening emails to Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite and event organizer for the military, exposed the secret liaison. Broadwell thought her emails to Kelley were anonymous, but in they were quickly traced by the FBI.
According to reports in the New York Times and Wired, investigators traced the handful of emails back to Broadwell by searching for other emails that had been sent from the same computer address. Their suspicions were confirmed because the location from which the emails were sent matched the hotels where Broadwell was known to be staying at the time.
Based on this information investigators obtained a warrant to monitor other email accounts used by Broadwell, which led them to the discovery of the affair. Kelley herself seems to have been involved in her own email scandal. Investigators are reportedly sifting through 20,000 to 30,000 pages of emails between her and General John Allen, whose appointment as NATO's top commander has been put on hold.
Ironically, the email-fuelled scandal broke at the same time that Google issued its semi-annual transparency report, which details the number of requests it gets from the government for data about private users.
"One trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise," said Dorothy Chou, Google's senior policy analyst, who noted that government demands for user data have increased steadily since Google first launched the Transparency Report.
In the first half of 2012, there were 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world. Those requests were for information about 34,614 accounts. In the US there were 6,321 requests for data, up from 5,950 in the prior six month period, Google said.
But cheating spouses rarely have to worry about government snooping, and it seems Broadwell was only investigated by the FBI because the target of her threats had a friend in the local Florida FBI field office. That man was identified Wednesday by the New York Times as Frederick Humphries. He only received the information from Kelley and never played a role in the investigation, and his lawyer told the Times there was no sexual relationship between him and Kelley.
However, suspicious spouses do not need high-level legal powers in order to snoop on their partners. Many surreptitiously install freely available tracking software on their partner's computers that allows them to monitor every online activity performed by the suspected philanderer.
Such programmes circumvent even the most draconian privacy measures taken by cheaters, such as using a private browsing mode that ostensibly erases all online tracks, or even sites like AshleyMadison.com which is an incognito dating service for married people who are looking for affairs.
As private investigator Jim Casteel said in the Washington Post, "For every action, they've got a counteraction."
Distributed by MCT Information Services