Email is a handy communication tool, but it can also be a dangerous one for someone in a position of power who has a lot of eyes watching him – as former CIA Director David Petraeus found out the hard way.
The retired four-star general abruptly resigned Friday, admitting to an extramarital affair discovered by the FBI, which was monitoring his email account.
The lesson: If you don’t want to get busted for something, you shouldn’t email someone about it, regardless of whether you’re a regular person, a company or one of the most decorated and revered generals in the country.
You'd think Petraeus would have been extra careful considering how keen the government is on tracking people, not to mention that looking through emails is pretty low-tech compared to some of the things the FBI can do.
Consider the fact, for example, that the FBI has started rolling out its $1 billion biometric Next Generation Identification system , a nationwide database of mug shots, iris scans, DNA samples, voice recordings, palm prints, and other biometrics collected from more than 100 million Americans and intended to help identify and catch criminals.
The FBI has been piloting the program with several states and by the time it’s fully deployed in 2014 it will have at its fingertips a facial recognition database that includes at least 12 million photos of people’s faces.
In addition, Wikileaks recently released a huge cache of leaked email from private intelligence firm Stratfor regarding surveillance software called TrapWire. Used by both private industry and the U.S. government and its allies, TrapWire lets both public and private sector users contribute to counter-terrorism and anti-crime efforts.
The software uses algorithms and data from a variety of surveillance sources to predict possible criminal activity.
According to the leaks, TrapWire is in use in public places in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, London, some Canadian cities, and in privately-owned Las Vegas casinos.
As for Petraeus, Paula Broadwell , his biographer and paramour, had apparently sent harassing emails to another woman who she thought was becoming involved with Petraeus, reports The Washington Post . The recipient of the emails complained to Petraeus, and the FBI later obtained emails between Petraeus and Broadwell that discussed the harassment, officials said.
Because the emails contained sexually explicit material, the FBI originally suspected someone had hacked Petraeus’ email account, which set off concerns about national security and a months-long investigation. FBI investigators later realized they had uncovered an affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.
As for why Petraeus felt the need to step down over the matter, “adultery is a crime when it may ‘bring discredit upon the armed forces.’ And a secret affair can make an intelligence officer vulnerable to blackmail,” reports The New York Times .
Petraeus was the pre-eminent military officer of his generation and had seemed all but indestructible, surviving war and other battles. It’s all the more surprising that his email communications prompted his downfall.