To be clear, Grits could honestly not care less if David Petraeus cheated on his wife. I don't know him, I don't know her, and the whole episode at root sounds tawdry and personal - the sort of thing that's none of my business except that the media tsunami has made it nigh-on impossible to avoid.. There are two elements of this episode, though, I do care about. First, Petraeus appeared to be one of the few truly competent career military leaders involved in making US foreign policy and I'd prefer not to see him ousted for reasons unrelated to job performance. Second, and more importantly for the issues covered by this blog, I'm flat-out astonished at the investigative path that led the FBI to Petraeus, and in particular the outlandishly sweeping electronic surveillance powers exhibited by the FBI - with and without a warrant - vis a vis Broadwell's gmail account(s), to which Google apparently gave them unlimited back-end access.
The Washington Post on Saturday ran a story detailing the sweeping nature of the FBI's electronic investigation powers through the lens of the Petraeus scandal. Reported the Post:
the trail cut across a seemingly vast territory with no clear indication of the boundaries, if any, that the FBI imposed on itself. The thrust of the investigation changed direction repeatedly and expanded dramatically in scope.Congressman.Schiff's quote nailed it: This investigation surely caused more harm to national security than it exposed. But this case was just a microcosm of a scandal IMO more worrisome than the liaisons of a middle-aged general. "Law enforcement demands for e-mail and other electronic communications from providers such as Google, Comcast and Yahoo are so routine that the companies employ teams of analysts to sort through thousands of requests a month. Very few are turned down." No doubt in at least some of those less-well publicized instances, just as happened with Gen. Petraeus, the harm from those investigations similarly outweighed their benefit.
A criminal inquiry into e-mail harassment morphed into a national security probe of whether CIA Director David H. Petraeus and the secrets he guarded were at risk. After uncovering an extramarital affair, investigators shifted to the question of whether Petraeus was guilty of a security breach.
When none of those paths bore results, investigators settled on the single target they are scrutinizing now: Paula Broadwell, the retired general’s biographer and mistress, and what she was doing with a cache of classified but apparently inconsequential files.
On Capitol Hill, the case has drawn references to the era of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the FBI, who was notorious for digging up dirt on Washington’s elite long before the invention of e-mail and the Internet.
“The expansive data that is available electronically now means that when you’re looking for one thing, the chances of finding a whole host of other things is exponentially greater,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House intelligence committee and a former federal prosecutor.
In this case, Schiff said, the probe may have caused more harm than it uncovered. “It’s very possible that the most significant damage done to national security was the loss of General Petraeus himself,” Schiff said.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which said the Petraeus scandal heralded the "no privacy era," "a recent Google report says government requests to Google for surveillance information have increased 55 percent in the last six months, led by the United States." Wired gave more detail, reporting that the company received more than 23,000 requests for email information from the US government in 2011. And even that may be understated:
Google’s transparency data is limited, as it does not include requests submitted under the Patriot Act, which can include National Security Letters that come with gag orders attached to them. Nor does the data include anti-terrorism eavesdropping court orders, known as FISA orders, or any dragnet surveillance programs legalized in 2008, as those are secret, too.Here's a good account of what's known about the techniques used by the FBI to dig into the couple's email.
The data Google hands over to governments can include e-mail communications, documents, browsing activity and IP addresses used to create and access an account, among other things.
Between nearly at-will back-end email access to email header information and the ability to access GPS tracking data from people's cell phones without a warrant, it really does seem like privacy in the modern era has become a pipe dream for most people. Hell, even the nation's top spy couldn't conceal his online activities: What chance do the rest of us have?
All I can say: We are lucky that we do not at present live in a full-blown totalitarian state, because we have given the state totalitarian tools.