Petraeus Case Sparks Debate on Online Privacy and Government Surveillance


How does it sound when a top level executive of Federal investigation agency could not safeguard his online privacy and activities…weird? Well, if yes, we are talking about the CIA chief David Petraeus, who could not uphold himself and his fling from getting public. This forced Petraeus to resign last week when it became clear that his affair with 40-year-old military reservist Paula Broadwell, his biographer, would become public.

But what’s more interesting than Petraeus and Paula’s fling scandal is the way story is shaping up – towards government intervention in user privacy.

When the CIA director cannot hide his activities online, what hope is there for the rest of us?” said Chris Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Privacy and Technology Project. “This should also serve as a warning, by demonstrating the extent to which the government can pierce the veil of communications anonymity without ever having to obtain a search warrant or other court order from a neutral judge,” he added.

While it is not yet clear what methods the FBI used in the probe, some reports suggest that the agents may have obtained a court order which allowed access to Broadwell’s Gmail account. Even Google reported in its semiannual Transparency Report that the government surveillance and intervention is continuously increasing, when it comes to online user privacy. In the first half of 2012, it received 20,938 requests for data from government entities around the world, including 7,969 from the United States. Google complied in 90 percent of those cases.

“The digital footprint we leave behind when using services, especially e-mail, is huge,” says Kyt Dotson, HackANGLE editor. “Since most of it isn’t encrypted by the majority of us, and although that information is stored securely even on third party systems, it’s still available for governments to read (with the proper authority.) We’ve seen that Google is generally law-abiding and complies with most subpoenas for information, one might suspect the ones they don’t abide by they fight legally.

“However, this raises the specter of how people protect their personal or even business correspondence the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) may be on the rise, but on-device e-mail encryption is still not very consumer friendly.”

Google stores huge volumes of data and personal information about its users. In addition to the wealth of information in e-mail and Google Drive accounts, the company also has users’ IP addresses, which can be used to determine locations. That’s a prime reason why it receives so many requests for data access, especially as a part of criminal investigations. That’s a different thing that this, sometimes, also exposes the private lives of people just like the thing happened with Petraeus. U.S. law enforcement agencies seem to be the most curious. The country continues to top the list for the most requests for user data in the world, followed by India.