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.)


2014 OPGA/POINT Freedom Award Presented To Eclipse Medical

Eclipse Medical, LLC in Chattanooga received the 2014 OPGA/POINT Freedom Award for their service and dedication to veterans and active duty soldiers. The OPGA/POINT Freedom Award recognizes OPGA and POINT members who have provided orthotic and prosthetic fitting and/or rehabilitation for soldiers wounded in action. “Every day more and more of our brave men ... (click for more)

Over Qualified

The loss of a job can be somewhat of a traumatic experience.  Many emotions accompany this life altering event, there are many highs and just as many lows, I will explore the highs and lows at a later time, but what I want this article to focus on are two little words that have a very demoralizing affect on the job seeker, “Over Qualified.” Being labeled “Over Qualified,” ... (click for more)

Man Shot At Apartments On Tunnel Boulevard Wednesday Afternoon, Then 2 Juveniles Shot At Rec Center On Oakwood Drive With Suspects In Custody

Chattanooga police officers responded to the apartment buildings at 404 Tunnel Blvd. Wednesday at 1:21 p.m., where residents say they heard multiple shots fired.  Witnesses said they saw multiple suspects fleeing the scene on foot behind the complex.  The male victim was taken to a local hospital for life threatening gunshot wounds.  Later Wednesday, ... (click for more)

Several Arrested Outside Erlanger Hospital When Crowd Gathers After Woodlawn Shooting

Several people were arrested Monday night outside Erlanger Hospital after a crowd gathered and clashed with police. The crowd included family and friends of 20-year-old Apprentice Berry, who was shot multiple times and killed earlier Monday night at the Woodlawn Apartments on Wilson Street. Erlanger officials said the group gathered at the emergency room, but were later moved ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Has Lost Its Most Popular Citizen - Luther Masingill - And Response

Chattanooga has lost its most popular citizen – Luther Masingill. Although we are saddened we cherish the memories.  All of us have a Luther story.  Mine is the first time I met Luther.  This was before TV and all of Chattanooga listened to Luther on the radio.  I was 12-years-old.  Some of my buddies and I had gone to the State Theater in downtown ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Policeman’s Prayer

Every year, when the Law Enforcement Foundation of Greater Chattanooga holds its annual luncheon, it is one of the most heartening displays of what America really believes, down deep inside. The most prominent and influential leaders in the community – well over 1,000 -- gather to pay tribute and pledge their support to our heroes in blue who are unfaltering in their devotion, service ... (click for more)