If Ex-General Petraeus’s Emails Are Fair Game, Are Yours?

Why your private monkey business just might be your employer’s business too.

CIA Director David Petraeus and author Paula Broadwell
The FBI is going through between 20,000-30,000 pages of documents, mostly emails, as a result of the discovery of the affair between CIA Director David Petraeus and author Paula Broadwell (Photo: ISAF/via Reuters).
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Ever hit send on an inappropriate email at work and two seconds later worried who might be reading it? Well, keep worrying. You don’t have to be David Petraeus to be a target of employer e-snooping.

At this stage, most of the world knows that Petraeus, a former four-star general, saw fit to resign as head of the Central Intelligence Agency last week after an extramarital affair with his mistress, Paula Broadwell, was surfaced in captured email messages. Well, not emails exactly—Petraeus and  Broadwell used the draft folder of a shared gmail account. Still, the top man at the CIA was communicating electronically with a woman who was not his wife. 

The affair has resulted in the general’s resignation and the abrupt halt to a high-profile career—and has launched a spiraling Washington scandal.

But could a similar abrupt public exposure have have been thrust upon, say, some office drone goofing around with co-workers or e-flirting?

The answer: absolutely.

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Since the rise of electronic business communication, courts have consistently found that employers have the right to snoop. Moreover, if national security is involved, as was presumably the case with Petraeus, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can issue a National Security Letter (NSL), send it to your employer or Internet service provider and, presto, you’re under surveillance.

Petraeus, one of the nation’s top spies, was clever enough to try that trick with the Gmail draft folder. But many people simply lose track of due diligence and fire off the casual inappropriate missive on workplace email.

“If the FBI has identified someone working at a private company as a national security threat, everything that happened to Petraeus could happen to them,” Frederick Lane, an attorney and computer forensics expert, tells TakePart. An NSL’s powers, which were greatly expanded under the PATRIOT Act, and make “it all too easy for them to get access to this kind of information in the interest of national security,” says Lane.

Petraeus, one of the nation’s top spies, was clever enough to try that trick with the Gmail draft folder. But many people simply lose track of due diligence and fire off the casual inappropriate missive on workplace email. Big mistake, says Lane. “If someone is dumb enough to use the company email system, all bets are off. That’s basically an open book.”

Don’t get paranoid. Your employer isn’t necessarily monitoring you 24-7, says Lane. But if you’re on thin ice with your boss, watch out. “If they want to get rid of someone, it gives them a lot more information to scrutinize,” he says.

Don’t think because you bring your own laptop to the office and use an outside email server, you’re beyond monitoring range. “If you’re using the company’s equipment in any way, it does open you up to surveillance,” says Lane, author of American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right. That means logging into the company wireless also makes you vulnerable to the watchful e-eye.

Employee risks aren’t confined to inappropriate office liaisons. Teachers, for instance, who make controversial Facebook posts from their workplace equipment are also facing discipline.  

So how to safeguard against the business you work for nosing into the business you live for? Lane says the only half-sure way is to use a smartphone that’s connected to a cell network to send and receive messages while at work.

“That just is the best practice,” he says. “If you just want that piece of privacy, use your smart phone. Text your kids, text your mistress, whatever.

“Try from an electronic point of view to create a separate existence for yourself.”

Should the government, or any employer, have the right to fire you for having an affair with a co-worker? Reason it out in COMMENTS.

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