Petraeus Scandal Reveals Limits of Email Privacy

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Officers in the US military and intelligence services have a wide array of state-of-the-art communication devices at their disposal, but for their personal use they turn to the same basic tools as the rest of us. At least that's what the ongoing investigations concerning Generals David Petraeus and John Allen suggest. Zeynep Tufekci joins us regularly to talk about the intersection of politics and technology. She is a visiting scholar at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy.

Zeynep Tufekci: One twist says that it turns out that General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell may have stored the emails in draft format rather than sending them, and they saw that as an additional protection. Ironically, I had first heard of that technique as an investigation of how the 9/11 terrorists had used email. They had saved them in draft formats rather than sending them and just shared the passwords instead.

Werman: I guess I'm always kind of surprised, as I often am when I hear stories like these, that the highest officials at the Pentagon use Gmail or Hotmail or any of these other things that we all have access to.

Tufekci: Well, that is a reflection of how commonplace that using email for personal purposes has become. It's like the phone or any other kind of communication, and it's thoroughly integrated into our everyday lives from, you know, very personal things to our financial dealings to how we get news, and this is what the scandal is revealing is that how little protection those communications have from surveillance.

Werman: Don't they have any protection available to them at the Pentagon? I mean, the Pentagon invented the Internet.

Tufekci: Obviously, for committing an affair they were not going to use the secure military emails. They used their personal accounts. And in general, the personal accounts we all use, our Gmail accounts, our Yahoo! accounts, I think most people would be shocked to learn how little legal protection they have. In fact, police or FBI may access your emails over 180 days old, if they're stored in the cloud, basically with no judicial review, and they need to just get a warrant if they're less than 180 days old. But the truth of it is most of the time people use these emails not thinking that they will be surveilled in this manner, and they would like to have the convenience of just using off the shelf email accounts, and that's what they do, including the head of the CIA as we saw.

Werman: What has this crisis taught you, Zeynep, about the media's ability to cover the military?

Tufekci: This crisis has revealed the striking bubble around top generals. Starting with the Iraq War and embedding of journalists within the military, it has meant that we have less and less critical coverage of both the acts that the military undertakes, and these are really important. They are unlike affairs which are personal tragedies. There is a war going on and there's a lot of lacking of coverage of the use of drones, the bombings, there's a lot of controversial issues that are not being covered, partly because journalists are not asking the critical questions and partly because they do not have the access to those areas unless the military okays this. And what we've seen is that these top generals seem to have been surrounded by people who are more interested in writing hagiographies of them than writing critical analysis. Now I do want to say I have a very personal appreciation of how hard the military life can be, so I don't think there's a lot of interest in the salacious materials here. But I'm from a military family myself and I understand how hard these.

Werman: Turkish military.

Tufekci: Turkish military, but I grew up in NATO bases so I attended a lot of, I attended school with, US military schools, basically, Department of Defense schools. And I've seen how hard deployments are on the military families and how hard they are both on the people who are away from their families and the families who are left behind. So I think these kind of adoring bubbles that journalists are forming around the generals is doing a disservice to military families as well.

Werman: Always good to speak with you about this stuff. Zeynep Tufekci, a visiting scholar at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. Thanks a lot.

Tufekci: Thank you for inviting me.