Petraeus Sex Scandal: How Safe Are Your Emails?

The sex scandal that toppled CIA Director David Petraeus and stalled confirmation of General John Allen as the top U.S. military commander in Europe may have implications for millions of ordinary Americans.

That's because the scandal was uncovered by a government search of personal emails that apparently even the head of the CIA believed to be private.

Related: Petraeus Sex Scandal: Does It Put the Whole Nation at Risk?

Here's what happened: Jill Kelley, a friend of former CIA Director Petraeus, complained to a friend in the FBI about anonymous, threatening emails. The FBI opened a cyberstalking investigation that eventually traced the emails to Petraeus' biographer Paula Broadwell. In the process, the FBI discovered an extramarital affair between Petraeus and Broadwell, which has apparently ended, and classified military documents on Broadwell's computer. Broadwell was apparently upset by Kelley's supposed flirtatious behavior toward Petraeus.

The investigation also uncovered emails between Jill Kelley and General John Allen, which Pentagon officials reportedly viewed as "overly flirtatious" and continue to probe. Altogether the investigation reportedly involved between 20,000 and 30,000 Internet documents.

"Increasingly Google is the source of information for governments worldwide," says The Daily Ticker's Henry Blodget. "The first six months of this year, (there were) 21,000 government requests for information, including 8,000 for private citizen email accounts."

Breakout's Jeff Macke says those numbers are relatively small compared to the hundreds of millions of people that regularly use gmail, Google's email service. He's not worried about the invasion of privacy so long as Google limits email searches and its investigations are focused and reasonable. Macke, however, is surprised that email users expect anonymity when they go online.

"On the Internet you leave a footprint every place you go," he notes.

Related: Will Petraeus Scandal Scuttle a Fiscal Cliff Deal?

Petraeus and Broadwell themselves are probably surprised that their emails were discovered and the contents were made public. In an effort to protect their privacy they reportedly wrote emails that were saved in draft folders. Using each other's passwords, they were able to access those emails without ever having to send them, and deleted them after reading. Blodget says this is a common method used by terrorists and teenagers, and it worked until the FBI got involved.

"If you run the CIA, if you're involved in the FBI at the levels we're talking about and you actually thought you could get away with this stuff for every long, you deserve to lose your job," says Macke.

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