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Petraeus and Gmail: Tips for the nation’s top spy

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The story of General David Petraeus’s fall gets stranger by the day, but one especially surprising detail is the rudimentary way he and Paula Broadwell carried on their secret e-mail conversations. The CIA director and his mistress apparently sent messages by creating a Gmail account under a pseudonym, then leaving notes in a draft folder that either one could read.

The method has been used by teenagers and Al Qaeda operatives, and it raises a number of questions — for instance, why the nation’s top spy didn’t know that Gmail accounts are supremely hackable; or that governments often request private data from e-mail companies; or that it’s easy for law enforcement to gain access to stored e-mails; or that an account, no matter whose name is on it, is traceable via the user’s IP address.

The Petraeus saga might actually prompt some productive discussion about the relative weakness of e-mail security. But for now, Petraeus and Broadwell have inadvertantly sent a warning to anyone who puts sensitive information into a private e-mail account: Whether your messages are titillating or not, they might not be secret for long.

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