Monday, November 19, 2012

On the Petraeus scandal and online privacy

Though this is not a Texas subject, here's something that's bothered me.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
Here's a good account of what's known about the techniques used by the FBI to dig into the couple's email.

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.


Anonymous said...

government intrusion: victimless crimes statues are often written with very vague language, with the naive promices and implied assurance and trust that the police would use common sense and not make arrests unneccessarily, and similarily the case would be rejected by public prosecutor or judge as unnecessary action based on unreasonable circumstances and non-applicability. The jury nullification use is forgotten, and replaced whith complete lack of compassion and consciense. The "guilty as charged, and off with his head" mentality. Unfortunately our current society takes great enjoyment in locking up citizens, the causing of suffering, the more behind bars the better, whenever they get a chance whene reading the sacred lawbooks. It has not always been like this. The todays enjoyment of emotional torture by the dark shadow of egregous max penalties that can be dealt out at the whim of the judge, unless you spend a major portion of your money to get a half good defense lawyer. The book 3 felonies a day. When any man picked from the street fits the crime description, and enforcement is random, but sentencing is crucifying -- the result is absolute fear of government, the "fear of the lord". The passtime of catching "sinners" to make the ultimate example of a few and selected citizens. Christians are no longer thrown to lions for snack, but the outcome of todays internet and nationwide tv is quite a stigmata by itself. Amendments are seldomly made, and requires a lot of suffering before finally enacted.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the tsunami was produced by the taking heads that are still in the "defeat Obama" mode.

It was the same for Clinton when the Republican'ts spent 50 million dollars proving Bill had oral sex with an aide,,,hell,,for 50 million I know a couple of gals in Dallas that will give us all oral sex.

Survivor said...

Many of us don't realize that just about everything we do, every email and every blog post along with every site we visit are being monitored by someone.

Don't believe your email is being monitored? Well, you're wrong, as the following would prove. Internet Providers have installed software that sifts through your emails searching for key words. These emails are flagged for review by your IP. Indeed, the former top drug prosecutor for the state of Maine is on the run tonight after having been caught with child pornography and sentenced to a long prison term. As the following link shows, federal authorities were contacted AFTER child porn was found in emails belonging to the prosecutor's wife by EMPLOYEES of Yahoo.

Computers are also sifting the airwaves looking for key words spoken on cell phones.

Think you have secrets that no one can find out? Think again...

rodsmith said...

Nice survivor. Florida just sentenced the former Head ICE boss here for same. He got lot of years.

doran said...

One way to resist the trend to the "full blown" digital totalitarian state is to mimic the Luddites of Holland. They were not happy with the industrialization of their society; their non-violent response included the insertion of their footwear --- sabots --- into the actual machinery of industry.

Obviously, industrialzation marched on, but maybe not at the pace and in the direction dreamed of by the industrialists.

Similarly, we can non-violently, and legally, resist and perhaps deflect the police-state advocates of our time, by inserting buzz words into all our emails. Put "bomb" into the subject lines, "armaments" into the body of the text. Don't make threats or engage in some childish, make-believe conspiracy; just drop those kinds of words, standing alone, into your emails.

At some point, the weight of the cost of tracking all those references could cause the surveillance industry to crash.

DEWEY said...

ossesr 98Yet another reminder that "Big Brother" is watching.
I thought about inserting one of the "key words" in here, but decided against it.

Lee said...

Adultery is not a crime. It is a daily occurance that we could care lee about and isn' any of your busniess. said...

I think that Grits meant to say that he "could NOT care less" about General Petraeus's adultry.

Anonymous said...

I am more concerned about the competency of someone who would expect "privacy" in an email.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

you are correct, pbutler, I fixed the usage error in the post. I knew better than that, just a brain fart. :o

Anonymous said...

The only problem I have with all of this is. In the military for over twenty years, I saw enlisted people who did the samething lose their rank, pay and even future veterans benefits for this behavior. The 4 star general who basically stole tax payer money to live high off the hog was given a very light punishment, compared to the fact an enlisted person would have lost everything and spent years behind bars is beyond words to describe. These men were in high positions were you lead by example. These men in the past have punished enlisted people for the same offensives too. They got to a point where in the fantasy land they lived in, the rules did not apply to them. Now, the police state we live in is another subject. Thomas Jefferson said this democracy would last a generation or two before the PEOPLE would demand a new system. The meaning is throw the old foggies out and bring in some new ones. The people have to vote these old men and women out of office due to the fact, they are out dated and have come to believe the rules do not apply to them. Now it is up to the voters and the off years or mid term elections is the best place to start. We need to stop this drug war and the prison complex for profit now. Hold the parole board members accountable when they fail to obey the state codes and especially the elected officials.

benbshaw said...

Grits, your pronouncement that we don't live in a full-blown totalitarian state is closer to official myth than reality.

NSA whistle blowers say that the NSA is currently sweeping in all phone calls and all emails without a warrant. The agency argues that there is no search unless someone puts on a headset and listens/views what they capture. So there is no need to have a folder or continuing dossier on anyone. They can press a button and create a dossier on the fly instantly. If they decide to focus on you for any reason, they can have everything you are doing or have done in a millisecond.

See whistle blower interview: "The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most Of Your Emails"

Meanwhile Senator Patrick Leahy is working to legalize what the FBI did in the Petraeus case.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

benbshaw, compared to actual totalitarian states, I'm afraid I can't agree the US is there yet. Whatever criticisms I may have, and I have some, the FBI is not the Stasi, e.g, - not even close. If the country ever does "go there," though, the tools for abuse will be all lined up and readily available.

3:44, that's a good point, to which I would onlly respond that the affair allegedly occurred after Petraeus had left the military and taken over the job at the CIA. Even so, I'm sure you're right there's a double standard that probably won't apply, for example, to Gen. Allen.

Anonymous said...

Grits not to argue with you but Petraeus affair began in Afganistan, when he was top dog or so I was told with a Reserve officer (Broadwell), both knew that was taboo, even by military standards, but of course the excuse is that many past Generals did the same thing. The General I was talking about is General Ward, look him up. When that kind of money is stolen or misused and I saw many enlisted people go to prison for a few thousand of dollars they made in the blackmarket, i.e. selling Cigs and booze. That is true in civilian life also. The rich and powerful, usually gets off or much lighter sentences. If they go to prison, while I would be thrown to the wolves in general population, they are in a protective custody. Must be nice to be so powerful the rules no longer apply to you. Maybe I should run for an office in Texas, like a Judge or Governor, then I can do anything I desire.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:32, I'd seen reports to the contrary. But if he was in the military when it happened I agree that raises the additional issues you posed re: military rules.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Grits, but know one will really know for sure when the affair started, could just be military gossip about Afganistan. I think now it is a much of CYA out this point. But I think the best thing for a perosn to do to get rich today and especially in Texas is run for a political office.