By now, most of us have heard about the ever-widening scandal that began with the revelation of an affair between General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, his biographer.
To recap, Broadwell and General Petraeus, both married, allegedly engaged in an affair that began last summer and ended a few months ago.
General Petraeus was the director of the CIA and a highly decorated army commander, but he stepped down from his post late last week when the affair became public.
This all started when Jill Kelley, a friend of General Petraeus, began receiving hostile emails from Kelley accusing her of getting too close to the general. In response, Kelley contacted the FBI who opened a cyberstalking inquiry, and promptly subpoenaed Kelley’s and Broadwell’s computers. In doing so, they discovered that General Petraeus had confirmed the affair over a gmail account and may have even exposed classified information.
In addition, the FBI found out that Kelley had inappropriate email exchanges with General John Allen, who is set to become the commander of all forces in Afghanistan. His confirmation hearing has been put on hold until the investigation is complete.
Now, all of this is a very interesting soap opera, but you can read all the sordid details elsewhere. What’s more important to privacy advocates was how easy it was for the FBI to find this supposed private information.
If a general and the CIA director can’t hide their online or offline activities, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The Death of Offline Privacy
Because our online and offline lives are so intertwined, it is very easy for law enforcement to find out the most intimate details of our private lives. And since this information is so easy to find, with our IMs, email accounts, Facebook and Twitter posts, any investigation will likely reveal much more information about us than originally intended.
Should law enforcement have the right to use unrelated details about our private lives that is revealed during investigations? Is our online information and activity our private information, or does it belong to whomever wants to see it?
Right now, the answer is that there are very few laws in place, if any, to curb law enforcement from finding out all the sordid details about our lives.
A Brave, New Completely Exposed World
The Patriot Act of 2001 allowed law enforcement unprecedented (and warrantless) access to our private information. Both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have amassed huge databases full of information about U.S. citizens, and have refused to reveal the scope of this information even to members of Congress.
Our cell phone providers routinely sell location data and information about who you call to local and federal law enforcement without a warrant or any oversight at all.
Our online lives reveal a lot about us: our friends, our religious and political beliefs, our interests, as well as stuff we don’t want to make public, like messy affairs or sexual preferences. If a CIA director and a top general can be taken down, what do you think our odds are?
Do we have the right to keep our online and offline lives private?
As of right now, the answer is no. Law enforcement and the government have many ways to find out anything they want to know about us. And while this may make sense in criminal investigations, who’s to stop them from compiling information about us for any reason, since they don’t need a warrant and since there is absolutely no oversight as to what data they collect?
To steal a phrase from a popular comic book: who’s watching the watchmen?