David Petraeus

What the Petraeus Investigation Tells Us About Online Surveillance

With regards to the David Petraeus scandal, as you dig through the very human details of a powerful man's dalliance with an attractive woman, an important question should occur to anybody with more than a National Enquirer-level interest in the matter.

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With regards to the David Petraeus scandal, as you dig through the very human details of a powerful man's dalliance with an attractive woman, an important question should occur to anybody with more than a National Enquirer-level interest in the matter: Wait … The FBI did all of this digging over some bed-hopping? Yes. Yes, it did. And over at The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald wants to know why more people aren't concerned.

Writes Greenwald:

As is now widely reported, the FBI investigation began when Jill Kelley—a Tampa socialite friendly with Petraeus (and apparently very friendly with Gen. John Allen, the four-star U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan)—received a half-dozen or so anonymous emails that she found vaguely threatening. She then informed a friend of hers who was an FBI agent, and a major FBI investigation was then launched that set out to determine the identity of the anonymous emailer.

That is the first disturbing fact: it appears that the FBI not only devoted substantial resources, but also engaged in highly invasive surveillance, for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of one of its agents, to find out who was very mildly harassing her by email.

Think about that. If an FBI agent can go digging through private emails over a friend's complaint about nasty-grams, doesn't that suggest that such intrusive snooping is pretty much old hat to the feds?

Greenwald points out that the FBI's digging into Paula Broadwell's nasty-grams not only took them into her email account and revealed her relationship with David Petraeus; it then revealed Jill Kelley's correspondence with General John Allen, including a truly awe-inspiring data-dump of emails between the two. Continues Greenwald:

So not only did the FBI—again, all without any real evidence of a crime—trace the locations and identity of Broadwell and Petreaus, and read through Broadwell's emails (and possibly Petraeus'), but they also got their hands on and read through 20,000-30,000 pages of emails between Gen. Allen and Kelley.

This is a surveillance state run amok. It also highlights how any remnants of internet anonymity have been all but obliterated by the union between the state and technology companies.

Online email services are especially vulnerable, with companies like Google and Yahoo essentially rolling over for the feds. As the Associated Press reported:

The downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus demonstrates how easy it is for federal law enforcement agents to examine emails and computer records if they believe a crime was committed. With subpoenas and warrants, the FBI and other investigating agencies routinely gain access to electronic inboxes and information about email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.

In fact, older emails — those six months old or older — don't require a warrant at all. Prosecutors can grab them on their own authority. Many companies will cough up detailed information without a formal warrant, anyway. "Google, which operates the widely used Gmail service, complied with more than 90 percent of the nearly 12,300 requests it received in 2011 from the U.S. government for data about its users, according to figures from the company."

Some email providers have been so eager to comply that they actually surrender more information than the FBI requests — and more than it is legally authorized to seek. One such high-profile incident occurred in 2006.

A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network — perhaps hundreds of accounts or more — instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

F.B.I. officials blamed an "apparent miscommunication" with the unnamed Internet provider, which mistakenly turned over all the e-mail from a small e-mail domain for which it served as host. The records were ultimately destroyed, officials said.

So remember … Your online privacy isn't so private.