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.)


Scam Phone Calls Continue; IRS Identifies Five Easy Ways To Spot Suspicious Calls

The Internal Revenue Service issued a consumer alert today providing taxpayers with additional tips to protect themselves from telephone scam artists calling and pretending to be with the IRS.   These callers may demand money or may say you have a refund due and try to trick you into sharing private information. These con artists can sound convincing when they call. They ... (click for more)

CBL & Associates Properties To Pay Common And Preferred Stock Dividends

CBL & Associates Properties, Inc. Thursday announced that its Board of Directors has declared a quarterly cash dividend for the company’s Common Stock of $0.245 per share for the quarter ending Sept. 30. The dividend is payable on Oct. 15 to shareholders of record as of Sept. 30. The Board also declared a quarterly cash dividend of $0.4609375 per depositary share for the ... (click for more)

Bradley, 24, Charged In Death Of 3-Year-Old Boy At Soddy Daisy

Justin Dale Bradley has been charged with criminal homicide in the death of a three-year-old child, who was rushed to the hospital on Wednesday and later died. Authorities said Bradley, 24, is the boyfriend of the child's mother. The mother earlier took out an order of protection against Bradley, and he was arrested for violating the order. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s ... (click for more)

Shooting Of 15-Year-Old Began As Argument Between Teens

According to police, the Tuesday night shooting of a juvenile on Taylor Street started as an argument between the two young men. Terry Marshell Smith Jr., 19, was arrested the following day. Police said the former Hixson High School student shot the juvenile in the shoulder after their argument and then fled the scene.  According to police, Smith admitted to the shooting. ... (click for more)

Better Plan For Walnut Street Hotel

Mitch Patel and his Vision Hospitality Group have unveiled a revised plan for a hotel on Walnut Street. It is much better than the one proposed two years ago. By having no curb cuts on Walnut Street, it makes that special block near the bridge more inviting and safer for pedestrians. Deliveries would be off Riverfront Parkway and hotel access (valet parking) would be off Aquarium ... (click for more)

Thanks For Making The Southern Brewers Festival A Success

Now that the dust has settled I'd like to thank Chattanooga for supporting the Southern Brewers Festival and making it yet another very successful event.    For those who do not know - the SBF benefits the Chattanooga chapter of Kids on the Block and the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.  As a partner helping the SBF with volunteers, sponsorships and the overall production ... (click for more)