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David Petraeus, online privacy and what we've learned (nothing, apparently)

U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of the international security assistance force and commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, is pictured at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on the situation in Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 15, 2011.


It really should be obvious by now: The Internet doesn't keep secrets. You might suppose a top-ranking spy cheating on his wife would already know not to leave juicy e-mail breadcrumbs lying around - however, cleverly he might think they are stashed. Or that, if the allegations are true, the adulteress would realize it's unwise to send jealous, threatening e-mails to a friend of her lover's wife - even if she didn't sign her name to them. And, when that friend calls the FBI to investigate, it's not overreaching to suggest that the FBI agent might excuse himself from the investigation - knowing it would likely come out that he had previously, in an act of infatuation, sent half-naked pictures to the complainant.

Love might make you stupid, but come on, people! To quote the Guardian's Michael Wolff , this is one "super weird" story - and it gets weirder with every passing hour. (Now there's another general involved who apparently sent 20,000 to 30,000 e-mails to the harassed friend, a "socialite" named Jill Kelley.) The only character acting with any good sense at this point appears to be Holly Petraeus, the betrayed wife who is beyond "furious" - but keeping quiet about it.

It's still not clear whether David Petraeus actually spilled any national secrets during pillow talk with Paula Broadwell, who was writing a book about the head of the CIA. (Both denied this, though the FBI are still busy carting boxes out of her house.) But if that didn't happen, it's reasonable to question whether Petraeus' resignation to U.S. President Barack Obama was necessary - after all Broadwell isn't an enemy spy, nor an employee. She was, CNN reports, a fellow West Point Graduate, with her own military background, and some level of security clearance herself. As Diane Brady, at Bloomberg Businessweek points out, that shifts the legal and even moral grounds of the affair.

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But as more than one online commentator has asked: Didn't anyone in this mess think leaving an e-mail paper trail was risky business? As the website Lifehacker details, it was easy-peasy to find them once the whispers started: Jill Kelley's complaint linked the harassing e-mail to a Gmail account traced back to Broadwell. That led to another Gmail account where Broadwell and Petraeus were communicating by leaving e-mail drafts in the account for each other to read. That account was then linked back to their individual IP addresses.

Seriously, it was simpler to track those damaging e-mails than actually understand the salacious details happening in real-world time. If you wanted to do a better job of hiding an off-the-book dalliance, Lifehacker suggests a more optimal approach.

But then, as Lifehacker reminds all those tempted to lead double lives, "the only real way to keep private information entirely private is to hand over that information in person."

Or, since people are unpredictable, not leave a paper trail at all - that's just basic James Bond. Especially when texts and e-mails are left waiting to be uncovered in a dozen digital nooks and crannies, your secrets almost always find a way to spill themselves.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More


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