What Petraeus Affair Reveals About Your Emails

photo credit: Italian embassy“Hell has no wrath like a woman scorned.” The saying took on a new meaning, with wrath being source of the “Petraeus-gate” that started when a general’s mistress believed he was cheating her.

The fact that Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family, received what she felt were threatening emails was apparently enough to bring the FBI into the case, prodded along by an agent-friend of the recipient.

The FBI started the investigation under the authority of the 1986 United States Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The act allows for “government entities” to acquire a warrant to access email records less than 180 days old “if there is reasonable cause to believe a crime has been committed.” For email older than six months, a federal agency only needs to get a subpoena signed by a federal prosecutor, not a judge, to obtain the messages.

Because of the wording of the law, Americans have fewer privacy protections for their electronic emails than would for those same messages than if they were printed out and stuck in a drawer.

In the eyes of the law, email kept on an individual’s hard drive in their home computer has the same protection as one’s personal papers, which require a search warrant. Emails stored on a remote server “in the cloud” do not have the same protection.

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