The General's Secret Gmail Account

Self on 11.15.12
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Photo: ConvenienceStoreGourmet/ Creative Commons

There is something amusing about the idea that the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and my ex-husband (and countless others) got caught cheating in the same way. The internet doesn't discriminate. General Petraeus knew he shouldn’t email his secret girlfriend from his regular account. So they set up a separate Gmail account to correspond.

My first marriage unraveled after I found my husband's secret email account called myweakside@yahoo.com, set up to correspond with his co-worker. He’d left the browser opened, and I hit the back arrow a few times.  

We've heard the news: Petraeus resigned after the affair with his biographer was uncovered by an F.B.I. investigation. The F.B.I. was alerted when the biographer sent anonymous, accusing emails to Petraeus’ woman friend, Jill Kelley. It's not just the F.B.I. who is potentially snooping. After my divorce, I met several women (and one man) at a single parents happy hour in New York City who had tracked their ex's with computer programs, private investigators and devices you attach to the underside of vehicles.

Knowing all this, why do people profess love and engage in intensely personal, sometimes illicit chit-chat online? It feels safe and anonymous. You are home in your robe, with a mug of tea and a mud mask (or at least you could be) fibbing about what you are wearing to somebody who is probably also home in a slovenly state, maybe even sitting next to their spouse. You are connected through the cloak of the keyboard. So it's easy to forget the internet is a public space, regulated by the government.

It's easy to forget because we live so much of our lives online without consequence. But anyone who watches Dateline or 48 Hours Mystery knows every keystroke leaves a traceable digital footprint. According to Google, during a six month period this year, governments and civil litigants around the world requested access to more than 30,000 Gmail accounts. And due to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can access email accounts stored in the cyber-clouds without any court procedure. Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, was quoted in the New Yorker News Desk Blog:

“We think that’s a little crazy...From a law-enforcement perspective, by putting your documents in a storehouse and giving a third party the right to access them, you’ve lost your privacy rights. But in today’s day and age, where everyone is using the cloud in this way..."

Yes, it seems crazy, but in my first job after college, working as a legal assistant for the Department of Justice, I used my .gov email account to send messages to my friends, my boyfriend and co-workers, many of which were probably not appropriate.

Maybe it's not a bad thing that we can't really hide what we do online. Without any accountability, the cyber-sky is a “slippery” space, an invitation to create different personas and act in ways we never would in our "real lives." Maybe it's not a bad thing that we are occasionally reminded of the danger, though I wouldn’t wish the discovery of your spouse’s secret email account on any woman (or man), and my thoughts these days are with Holly Petraeus.

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