Lee Davis: Petraeus Affair Raises Concerns About E-mail Privacy

Monday, November 19, 2012 - by Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Lee Davis
With all the coverage surrounding the recent fiasco involving General Petraeus, the extent of people’s personal electronic security has been given increased attention. After all, if the CIA Director isn’t able to keep his emails private, what hope is there for the rest of us? Many privacy experts agree the recent scandal has shown just how vulnerable most people are in terms of the transparency of their digital communications.

The first thing that many experts say you need to realize is that no matter what you’re trying to hide, if it’s in your e-mail inbox it is possible that someone will find out. If the thing you’re hiding involves criminal activity, the chance of the government finding it goes up exponentially given their power to search and subpoena information.
This doesn’t change whether the information is contained on your hard drive or floating up in the cloud.

One thing that Petraeus discovered was that the government can easily connect you to an account by using the IP address of the computer you used to access the account. This is what proved that he and his mistress were using the otherwise anonymous account. E-mail providers like Google and Yahoo save this kind of information for 18 months, during which time it can easily be subpoenaed.

Something many people may not realize is that the Fourth Amendment requires the authorities to get a warrant from a judge to search only physical property. Rules governing e-mail searches, however, are far more lax. Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that Congress enacted to protect your privacy in electronic communications, a warrant is not required for e-mails six months old or older. Even if e-mails are more recent, the federal government needs a search warrant only for “unopened” e-mail. Everything else, including identifying information such as the IP address used to access the account requires only a subpoena.

One complicating factor is a recent rejection of the government’s approach by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The district happens to encompass many of the technology companies that handle e-mail messages and the servers that contain the data. Given the decision by the Ninth Circuit, the Department of Justice’s Manual now includes a note reminding agents in the area to get a warrant before accessing such information.

Though many people might believe this kind of e-mail surveillance only happens in high profile cases, the reality is that law enforcement throws a large net when looking for incriminating information. Google reported that United States law enforcement agencies requested data for 16,281 accounts from January to June of this year, and it complied in 90 percent of cases. Online users need to realize that everything is logged and recorded somewhere. If you don’t want someone else to find it, don’t say it.

Read: “Trying to Keep Your E-Mails Secret When the C.I.A. Chief Couldn’t,” by, published at NYTimes.com.

(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at lee@davis-hoss.com or at 266-0605.)


Corker Asks Colleagues To "Oppose Blatant Budget Gimmick Proposal To Fund Highway Trust Fund"

In remarks on the U.S. Senate floor Monday, Senator Bob Corker said senators should reject using a budget gimmick known as pension smoothing to pay for a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund and instead commit to a long-term, sustainable solution to highway funding. “Many claim that budget gimmicks should not be used as offsets to pay for spending," said Senator Corker. ... (click for more)

Cornerstone Community Bank Has Rise In Earnings

Cornerstone Bancshares, Inc. (OTCBB: CSBQ; CSBQP), parent company of Cornerstone Community Bank, today reported earnings for the second quarter ended June 30, including a rise in income. Net income for the quarter was $409,000, a 3.3 percent increase from the same quarter of 2013.  Net interest income increased 5.5 percent from the same quarter last year. “Cornerstone ... (click for more)

EPB Says It Did Not Overbill The City; Says City Got $685,877 Break

EPB officials said Tuesday that an exhaustive audit of its street light contract with the city showed that it did not overbill the city. Instead, it said it found that the city was underbilled $685,877. EPB said it only goes back one year on errors so the amount owed by the city would be $178,314. Officials said that would be discussed with the city. Stan Sewell, the city's ... (click for more)

Citizens To Comment Next Tuesday On Sound Control Ordinance That Allows Higher Sound Around Downtown Clubs

Citizens will be allowed to comment next Tuesday on a new Sound Control Ordinance that allows higher sound from nightclubs in a downtown Controlled Sound Boundary. Track 29 behind the Chattanooga Choo Choo, that has drawn the wrath of some nearby Southside residents, is within the boundary, which goes along the river on the north and west, to around Erlanger Hospital on the ... (click for more)

I'm Number One In A Round About Way

Roundabouts have been popping up all over Chattanooga over the past few years and for the most part have been successful.  Unfortunately there are some who just don’t get it as I have found out the hard way.    My latest instance was last week when a young woman on her cell phone almost t-boned me as she flew into the roundabout without yielding.  A near miss ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Oscar Brock’s True Passion

I don’t pay much attention to the Hamilton County School Board. Once the moon and the stars aligned behind Superintendent Rick Smith, you hear very little, if anything, from the nine-member council that oversees an annual budget of almost $400 million and employs 4,480 people. So chew this for a minute: approximately 2,000 of those people are not teachers. Yes, there are 78 principals ... (click for more)