But then . . . it got away from them. It's worth asking why. If it could happen to these tech-savvy people, it could happen to anyone who uses e-mail.
The Petraeus-Broadwell Gmail exchange might never have been discovered, except that Tampa, Fla., resident Jill Kelley began to receive anonymous e-mails she found threatening. She told her friend FBI agent Frederick Humphries about it. Soon the FBI was surveilling Broadwell.
Ryan Gallagher, a British-based columnist and a blogger for Slate, says by e-mail that "what the FBI's surveillance of Paula Broadwell illustrates is just how easy it is for a person's digital trail to be traced."
The FBI obtained information such as the IP addresses of the computers that sent the messages to Kelley. (Again, Broadwell had been clever, sending from a variety of computers in a variety of locations. Didn't matter.) It cross-referenced those with things like hotel guest lists. Broadwell's name started popping up. That's how the trail was blazed. When they investigated further, the trail led to Petraeus.
(Why did Petraeus and Broadwell not better protect their messages? Gallagher says they could have used such tools as PGP encryption or Tor, which render messages into hard-to-crack code. Was it the recklessness of passion?)
Why is e-mail, which we assume is our private stuff, so not private? Because, says Christopher Simpson, professor of journalism at American University, "many powerful interest groups have created the situation we're now in."
For example, a recent Google report says government requests to Google for surveillance information have increased 55 percent in the last six months, led by the United States.
Don't think it's only government. Private-sector corporations, marketers, and freelance crooks want in, too. As Gallagher points out, "We know very little about the true scale of privatized surveillance in the United States, which in any democratic society I'd say is cause for a degree of alarm."
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in 2010 that privacy is no longer a social expectation; public is the new norm. "He was wrong, I think," says Simpson, "but he and his company have every incentive to push that notion."
So, unknowingly, in using e-mail at all, Petraeus and Broadwell played directly into a mess in the making for a generation.
On the Web show HuffPost Live, Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said: "Maybe the first lesson from this case is that if you send an e-mail to someone, they might share it with someone else - and that someone else might be law enforcement."
The Petraeus-Broadwell affair had a chance to stay private. But when Kelley told Humphries about the threatening e-mail, and once the FBI got on the case, all plunged into the realm of high-tech surveillance. "At that point," says Simpson, "it entered a legal and political machinery that's very powerful and runs on its own steam. Once that door is open, there's no calling it back."
The consequences, as the world now knows, go beyond even the resignation of Petraeus as CIA director, to involve Gen. John Allen, whose e-mails (characterized by various sources as anything from merely "flirtatious" to "the equivalent of phone sex over e-mail") to Kelley were also discovered. He has denied any wrongdoing, but his nomination to be commander of NATO forces in Europe is now on hold.
Personal privacy, R.I.P.? Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology at Princeton University and assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says it's not that privacy is impossible; it's that neither government nor private corporations, both of which thrive on surveillance, "have shown enough interest and effort in preserving our privacy. . . . What is missing is the will, interest, and incentive among governments or technology companies."
For now, maybe a tweet to HuffPost Live, from @meburningyou, should stand for all of us:
"Anyone that types anything on the internet or in an email sent over the internet is personally responsible for knowing that it is not secure. Ever."
Contact John Timpane
at 215-854-4406 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.