It's Impossible to Keep a Secret These Days

Let's have a little talk about secrets. There are all kinds of secrets out there in the world: personal secrets, state secrets, secret recipes, secret sauces, top secrets, secret levels in video games, Victoria's Secret. The list goes on. But as we're...

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Nov 13 2012, 8:00pm

Let’s have a little talk about secrets. There are all kinds of secrets out there in the world: personal secrets, state secrets, secret recipes, secret sauces, top secrets, secret levels in video games, Victoria’s Secret, ad infinitum. But as we’re quickly learning from the rapidly unraveling details of David Petraeus’s affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, secrets are no longer sacred.

In a world where America’s chief of secrets — a.k.a. the director of the Central Intelligence Agency — can’t even keep an extramarital affair to himself, there’s something wrong. And as we’re quickly learning, it wasn’t just Petraeus and Broadwell that had secrets to keep in this case, but also several others, including FBI agents and another Army general. If these folks can’t keep their personal lives secret, what’s happening with all that classified information that’s supposed to be keeping our country secure?

As far as the Petraeus case is concerned, we don’t yet know. On Monday, the FBI ransacked Paula Broadwell’s house, photographing the inside, and carrying boxes of evidence out to their trucks. We’re not quite sure what they were looking for, but it seems like every time the Feds turn over a stone, they find a new character in the saga. We also don’t know exactly how deep Broadwell’s relationship with Petraeus went. That is, how much did she actually know about his day job at Langley? Are the North Koreans coming to get us now? And seriously, how could Petaeus not keep this thing under wraps? He was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. His entire job is to keep things a secret!

It’s going to be a while before we know the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I’d argue that secrets aren’t really the root of the issue here. Privacy is. The entire house of cards began to fall with some simple email hacking on the part of the FBI. Basically, Petraeus and Broadwell were having their affair, and Broadwell started sending anonymous harassing emails to Jill Kelley, a social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and Petraeus acquaintance. Kelley did not like being harassed so she took the handful of emails to a friend of hers, who happened to be an FBI agent, who agreed to look into the emails and see if there was any evidence of criminal cyber harassment. Now, it’s a little bit strange that the FBI would agree to a full investigation into a few rude emails sent to a low level military employee. It seems shady. But I’ll get back to that in a second.

This is the point in the story where the FBI starts digging through people’s inboxes. Using location information, they traced the source of the harassing emails back to Broadwell. “FBI agents were able to determine what locations they were sent from,” The Wall Street Journal explains. “They matched the places, including hotels, where Ms. Broadwell was during the times the emails were sent.” Then, “FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the information as probable cause to seek a warrant to monitor Ms. Broadwell’s email accounts.”

Once they were in Broadwell’s inbox, they found more anonymous emails, some of them explicit, and used the metadata attached to the emails to trace them back to Petraeus. The FBI stuttered at this point, unsure what to do after they’d busted one of the highest ranking and most top secret men in the military for having an affair with his biographer. The news bubbled up to the top, and once Petraeus realized he’d been caught he resigned.

One thing is clear from this narrative. No matter who you are, it’s hard to keep a secret when the FBI has hacked into your email account. In this case, they used a warrant, but for many cases, they wouldn’t have to, thanks to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA, in the words of The New York Times, “authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.” This is a Bush-era law passed in the wake of September 11, and, like it or not, it means that, if the NSA can argue you are a person of interest with regards to national security, nothing you do online is ever really private.

I’m not saying that Petraeus fell victim to FISA. In a way, he fell victim to his own crappy spy skills. Gmail is pretty secure, but just because you set up a Gmail account under a fake name and speak in code, or use the same account to correspond with saved drafts, doesn’t mean the feds can trace that back to your home IP address or, even easier, a hotel IP address. If Petraeus really knew what he was doing, he would’ve gone with an encrypted email service, run everything through TOR, and actually tried to cover his digital tracks. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to cover your digital tracks anymore. In the past year, we’ve seen some of the world’s best hackers get taken down for silly errors, like logging on to Xbox servers and divulging too much personal information.

It’s hard to keep a secret, these days, mostly because it’s hard to comprehend how much privacy you do or don’t have on the Internet. If all else fails, just take a page from the mob. Don’t have conversations in front of your laundromat. Take a walk around the block. Don’t talk on the phone. Take a walk around the block. And if you’re the nation’s number one spy and want to have sex with a woman that is not your wife, ask your fellow spies for advice or check out a book in the CIA library or something. Just don’t orchestrate the whole thing over Gmail.

Image via Flickr