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Misusing the weapon that took down Petraeus – email

This July 13, 2011, photo made available on the International Security Assistance Force's Flickr website shows former general David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.(AP Photo)

The sex scandal that led to CIA Director David Petraeus’ downfall and prompted an investigation of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was made possible by their digital footprints.

We all make footprints online every day and emails are not nearly as private as you think.

Email accounts ultimately exposed the affair between CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell.

General John Allen is caught up in the scandal thanks to 20,000 to 30,000 pages of emails and other documents from Allen’s communications with Jill Kelley between 2010 and 2012.

Kelley works as a volunteer social planner for events at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida which is where Petraeus was a commander from 2008 until 2010.

What were they thinking?

They might have thought their discussions were safe because they weren’t using their employer’s account. You do know your employer can read all of your work emails if the boss wants to, right?

The former General Petraeus was using Gmail, from Google, a company that cooperates with government requests for data.

U.S. government agencies sought user data from Google 6,321 times for the six months ending December 2011, which was up from 5,950 during the first six months of 2011, according to Wired Magazine.

Petraeus and Broadwell tried to keep their communication private by not transmitting the emails. Instead of sending the messages, they composed some of them in the Gmail account and saved them as a “draft” message. The other person could log onto the same account and read the draft emails there.

This technique avoids creating an email trail, which is easier to trace. But, Google still has a record of draft messages.

Even an anonymous Gmail account would have exposed Petraeus. Gmail has logs of when messages are sent reveal the Internet address the user used to log onto the account. Matching times and dates with locations allow investigators to piece together the chain.

Also making it easy to gain access to the Petraeus and Allen emails, is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Federal authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor – not a judge – to obtain electronic messages.

While investigators sort out the sordid details, there are a few ways you can better protect your emails.

There are email services to maintain private, potentially incriminating, information through encryption. PrivateSky or Enlocked are two examples.

Other companies have been created to hide your IP (Internet Provider) address. Proxy services sit in between a sender and recipient, disguising the real email address of the user.

You could use disposable, one-time, email addresses. Broadwell was using multiple Gmail accounts to do multiple things. In one account she and Petraeus were leaving drafts of emails for each other so they weren’t easily traceable. On another, she was allegedly sending harassing messages to a woman in Florida. Both accounts were linked together.

Or, here’s an idea. Keep all your private stuff offline.


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