Surveillance

Archaic Federal Law Made Petraeus's Emails Fair Game

He would have been better-protected with snail mail

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If former CIA Director David Petraeus had secretly stashed love letters he exchanged with his paramour at home under his mattress, he might have actually done a better job of protecting his privacy.

Blame federal law for this counterintuitive result. Because it's so easy to dash off an e-mail—or edit a Gmail draft—you might think electronic correspondence should receive far greater legal protections and be more difficult for the FBI to read.

Not quite. Because of the way a key federal privacy law was worded in 1986, back in the pre-Internet days of analog modems, floppy disks, and the 2.8 MHz Apple IIgs, e-mail stored in the cloud receives less legal protection than it would if printed out.