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Should our top spies be using Gmail?

Former CIA director David Petraeus and US General John Allen at a 2011 ceremony.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former CIA director David Petraeus and US General John Allen at a 2011 ceremony.

WASHINGTON — In light of the Gmail-related scandal involving former CIA chief David Petraeus, one has to wonder if, given the relative ease by which an intelligence agency — or just about anybody — can break into a private e-mail account, government officials entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive information should be allowed to keep personal e-mail accounts while in office.

True, Petraeus’ e-mail was never actually broken into or hacked by the FBI. Agents gained access to his naughty notes by monitoring Paula Broadwell’s e-mail and then asking Broadwell if she was having an affair with Petraeus. She fessed up and gave them access to her computer and with it, even more of his e-mails. Nevertheless, the very revelation that our nation’s top spy used at least one relatively unsecure Gmail account has prompted people to raise the above question.

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I recall being surprised whenever one of Petraeus’ retired predecessors would reply to my e-mails from an AOL e-mail account or something equally pedestrian. It just seems a little odd that people with access to incredible secrets use the same e-mail services the rest of us do.

If hacked, these e-mails could reveal plenty about the personal lives of their owners who hold high office. Hackers probably wouldn’t find state secrets, but they could find plenty of personal information — travel plans, info about friends and family, online purchases, bank accounts, the list goes on and on. As Google knows for business purposes, a look at someone’s e-mail can paint a pretty valuable picture of who they are. Google uses this information to sell ads tailored to your interests. You can imagine what spies would do with it.

Still, there are questions about what type of service officials could use — perhaps something like Hushmail or TigerText or some NSA-furnished e-mail — and how effective it would be. Would these texts and e-mails be monitored by the FBI for intrusions? Even if top U.S. government officials use secure services for their personal e-mails and texts, is it realistic to assume that their personal information could be kept safe if their acquaintances are using unsecure e-mail and texting services?

One noted IT security expert familiar with the intelligence world that I spoke with said that while it’s surprising that officials such as CIA directors use Gmail and similar e-mail clients, it would be challenging to develop a secure method for them to transmit private information.

‘‘I don’t really think the government has the ability to deploy something like that, and one of the reasons why people use these [private] systems is they don’t want that same level of monitoring going on with their private e-mails that they would get under any government supplied system,’’ said the expert.

The expert recommended that CIA directors and the like take a page from private business executives’ playbook and use Gmail’s two-step authentication system, which is, according to him, much more secure than competitors such as Yahoo (the result of a major hack Google suffered in 2009), and then hire an outside company to scan their laptops, smartphones and tablets for intrusions every few days. ‘‘You tell ‘em, ‘Don’t log into the hotel PC, don’t log into the airport kiosk, none of that kind of stuff.’ ‘‘

These frequent scans are vitally important since they will be one of the only ways to protect against spear-phishing attacks by foreign intelligence agencies that have hijacked the e-mail accounts of a VIP’s acquaintances.

At the end of the day, the expert reiterated, public officials should simply keep sensitive info out of their e-mail.

‘‘What could somebody find if they just logged into your e-mail one day,’’ he said. ‘‘Is your social security number in any of the e-mails, your tax return? I go through periodically and I just purge everything I can find.’’

One government official who seems to get this is Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who doesn’t use e-mail, partially out of concerns about its vulnerability to hacking.

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Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. Previously, he edited Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and was associate editor of DoDBuzz.

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